Garland Civic Theatre
Directed by Josh Hensley
Set Design – Josh Hensley
Lighting Design – Catherine Luster
Costume Design – Ryan Matthieu Smith
Properties – Sydnee Mowery
Stage Manager – Sydnee Mowery
Michael Baker – Dr. John H. Watson
Christopher L. Dean – Sherlock Holmes
Stephen Bouldin – Sigmund Freud
Severt Philleo – Queen Victoria
Andrew MacDonald – Professor James Moriarty
Evan Figg – Mycroft Holmes
Samantha Labrada – Irene Adler
Heavenly Torres – Mary Morstan Watson
Bart Cowser, Joel Jenkins and Heavenly Torres – Stagehands
Reviewed Performance 3/8/2015
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Several of the online review blurbs called Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes “the story of a good man trapped in the shadow of a great man”. I would call it a wonderfully inventive, farcical comedy trapped in the guise of a serious mystery thriller. The theatricality of the script so overpowers the serious plot that you’re left wondering whether you can or should laugh at all the absurdity.
And this is the complete fault of the script. Playwright Jaime Robledo fails to pick sides – comedy or drama – and so ends up with a sometimes indecipherable rigmarole of a play. Watching the first minutes, I thought this was going to be an awkward, amateurish production, but when it was obvious the level of high theatrics made it a comedy, my opinion changed 180 degrees.
Another huge problem in the script is having Watson and Holmes play the drama in the midst of a comedy. Watson narrates the entire play while being involved in most of the scenes. Speaking down front and center, his monologues hold vital information and therefore lend a more dramatic tone that simply does not fit in with the staging of the play.
Seemingly of less importance, the story is set in both 1891 and 1894. Queen Victoria assigns Sherlock Holmes a mission to deliver a mysterious box to a political summit which could either cause or prevent a world war. When Holmes gets sidelined by his cocaine use (chronically emphasized in the play), Watson takes the lead. Traveling internationally from London to Cyprus and back via cab, train, balloon, horseback and more, many of the Conan Doyle characters emerge along the way – brother Mycroft, Irene Adler, the evil Moriarty – as well as Sigmund Freud, Watson’s wife Mary and, of course, her royal majesty Queen Victoria.
Once one knows the play is meant to be a highly theatrical, comedic spectacle, it’s easier to get into the actual production. In reading snippets of the script, I saw that Robledo’s stage instructions are detailed and specific – the set pieces needed, the music to be played, etc. Garland Civic Theatre must have taken his every word to heart as their set pieces and properties were too numerous to count. Yes, there are 24 scenes in the play and, thankfully, there are not full sets for each, but it would have been much easier to follow and less strenuous on the actors had Director/ Set Designer Josh Hensley thrown out most of Robledo’s instructions. As is, there were too many changes involving several set pieces vs. ones with no set, and too many only used once pieces. And though the actors playing Stagehands are meant to be seen, sometimes it worked beautifully and sometimes it was a big distraction. One piece in particular, a multi-stepped platform came out of the middle of Holmes’ living room like a washed up iceberg – totally inappropriate in that space. It was only used effectively once as the White Cliffs of Dover, the rest of the time was simply in the way. That and too oft used rolling doorways all became unnecessary extravagances; again here, less would have certainly been better than more.
There were some ingenious uses of set pieces however, as with large wooden containers becoming train seating, a la The 39 Steps. Café chairs transformed into a hansom cab or horses, and an off-style chandelier into the fire mechanism of a hot air balloon. Holmes’ window curtains were removed downstage and cleverly turned into curtained doorways for a Watson/Holmes chase. Another window was a backlit scrim to for quick scenes. More of that kind of multi-use ingenuity would have served the actors and audience more effectively.
And then there were these walls, three of them – the upstage wall of Holmes’ living room and the others further downstage on either side. Painted blue with irregularly wavy lines and olive green masses, they looked like either hallucinogenic maps or rips in the cosmos of time. Such a major part of the set, I found it unfortunate not knowing what they represented.
Catherine Luster’s lighting design was rather generic, a spotlight that followed Watson and a backlit scrim being additional effects. Two floor lights aimed low across the center stage floor worked nicely to support a climatic visual effect.
Costuming was a mishmash of styles and time periods, very surprising for Ryan Matthieu Smith, whose designs are usually period accurate and spot on for the characters. Some men’s suits were modern dress and two, wide-lapel cropped vests were of a time before the late 1800’s. Watson’s suit and hat lent an old vaudevillian mode, his cheeks reddened and eyes darkened, and I couldn’t take him seriously. Queen Victoria is a comedic, over-the-top character in this play and Smith let her go right over the edge. Taking the word queen literally, her royal highness, who is played by a man, moved into the dual world of drag/dominatrix. The queen’s normal black mourning gown turned into a split shoulder velvet gown with fishnet hose and black patent shoes with 4 inch clear acrylic heels. Her oft seen white veil and tiny crown was replaced by a full of flowers headdress with white dove wings hanging out the back. A single-strand, diamond necklace was exchanged for a chest plate of pearls. I don’t know how actor Severt Philleo stood up.
The most completely puzzling costume was that of Sherlock Holmes. I didn’t long for the stereotypical caped coat and deer hunter hat, but his long, tattered, collarless red coat was a cross between a dressing robe and a lab coat. The period was unrecognizable, as it was for his fake argyle polyester vest. Pants of the period were tighter and more tapered and his were full and baggy. Holmes is not a fashion diva but he comes from a family of means, and while his clothes might be disheveled they would be of the period. I recognize the choice was in conjunction to Holmes’ highly emphasized drug use, showing him at a low point, with scraggly beard, rumpled hair and hollow eyes, but as one of two straight men in a farce play, the look just didn’t work for such an iconic character.
Uncredited sound design used music as instructed in the script, such as Ravel’s Bolero. Classical music dramatized fight scenes or floated with the hot air balloon, and high-powered music held the suspense during intermission. Most special effects were a hoot – cartoonish cuckoo bird tweets during drug hallucinations and the Three Stooges theme song at a Punch and Judy-style puppet show. Street noises, birds fluttering on a window ledge, sinister drums of the Turks and screeching metal sounds such as from the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho all supported both the serious mystery and the absurdist comedy.
Heavenly Torres’ Mary Watson, Evan Figg’s Mycroft Holmes, Samantha Labrada’s Irene Adler, and Stephen Bouldin’s Sigmund Freud had only one or a couple of scenes and all portrayals were adequate to further the story along. Bouldin’s Austrian accent was a bit stereotypical, but in the context of this play was fine. Severt Philleo added necessary comic relief as Queen Victoria. His assurance in the role and in his/her scenes would make the old girl proud.
Andrew MacDonald’s Professor James Moriarty was appropriately evil and menacing, and his sinister laugh made me want to do the same.
I couldn't relate to Christopher L. Dean’s Sherlock Holmes. Under Josh Hensley’s direction, there was too much anger, confusion, drugged behavior and unintelligible speech to keep me interested. Michael Baker’s Dr. John H. Watson, was similarly absent of interest save for his narrative monologues where he shone. Sometimes it was only those monologues that helped make the plot understandable. But Baker’s appearance kept affecting my opinion of the good doctor’s ability to lead the mission to save the world from war.
Hands down (pun intended), the most interesting characters were performed by the three person ensemble called Stagehands. Bart Cowser, Joel Jenkins and Heavenly Torres moved most all the many set pieces, rapidly changed costume pieces to portray several featured characters, and well supported scenes with the leads. Each had one or two fun characters to play and their comedic timing was superb. Their physical dexterity and endurance was admirable. A thrilling scene involved Holmes, Watson and Adler on horseback via café chairs. The Stagehands, now as Turks, entered astride their chair horses. Battling the heroes, each fell off or away from their horses, slowly falling and rolling back. The effect was visually exciting, absurdist and astounding.
One of the most entertaining scenes was done with two hat racks, six hats and Joel Jenkins. Set in Victoria Station, London, Jenkins rapidly dons hat upon hat, over and over again, portraying the station agent, a young beggar, and four upper class passengers waiting for the train. His accents and vocal inflections changed as fast he could change hats. Each character was distinctly different and his one man scene was a real highlight.
So, here’s the gist. If you want a tried and true Sherlock Holmes/Dr. John Watson mystery story, this is not the play for you. But if you enjoy watching absurdist comedy using skilled and highly exaggerated theatricality, you don’t have to be a detective to search for the laughs in Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes. It will thoroughly entertain you and leave you laughing once you realize that you’re supposed to. It was easy to laugh during most of the antics. In point of fact, it was elementary.
WATSON: THE LAST GREAT TALE OF THE LEGENDARY SHERLOCK HOLMES
Garland Civic Theatre
300 N. Fifth Street
Garland, TX 75040
Plays through March 28th
Friday-Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday at 2:30 pm. Additional performance on Thursday, March 12th at 7:30 pm.
Tickets range from $4.00 to $26.00.
For information and to purchase tickets, visit www.garlandcivictheatre.com or call their box office at 972-205-2790.