The appeal of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s timeless partnership — the ingenious detective paired with his reassuringly average friend and literary chronicler — has proved an enduring one. Even in Doyle’s time, Holmes and Watson made it onto the stage, and a modern adaptation of their adventures has just opened at Portland Stage Company.
In “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure,” based on the original 1899 play by William Gillette and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, playwright Steven Dietz amiably mashes up two of the most famous Holmes stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Final Problem.” With grace and wit, Kevin R. Free directs a very game ensemble of this “final” game afoot for Sherlock Holmes (Ezra Barnes) and Dr. Watson (Brian Lee Huynh).
Victorian-era settings are always a fine occasion to show off the PSC stage’s beautiful brick back wall, which set designer Anita Stewart compliments with additional brickwork arches, a catwalk, and the spare period furnishings of 221B Baker Street: dark wood, Asian carpets, a Victrola.
Told in flashbacks from the day Holmes is declared dead, the story ranges around London and beyond, as Holmes and Watson investigate a case brought to them by the sensual, child-like, and often petulant King of Bohemia (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper).
The King’s problem stems from having once dallied with famous opera diva Irene Adler (Isabelle Van Vleet) — whom Holmes aficionados will recognize as the person Holmes refers to as “the woman.” A photo of Irene and the King from their lovebird days has become inconvenient now that Irene is threatening to send it to the family of his fiancée. But Holmes is on the case, which soon becomes creatively intertwined with another story involving Holmes’ arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Tom Ford).
It’s been some time since their last detecting exploits when lanky Holmes summons Watson for what he’s already foreseen might be their last adventure. But the two fall right back into their old beloved rapport, which Barnes and Huynh make richly intimate and comedic.
If you’ve become accustomed to Benedict Cumberbatch’s mildly sociopathic Holmes, you may find Barnes’s Holmes surprisingly — but appealingly — grandfatherly. We see little of Cumberbatch’s cold, antisocial imperiousness in this Holmes, who is often quite affable and garrulous. Barnes gives his graying Holmes vulnerability, an emotional wistfulness, and a gentle comic manner, and all of this endears him to us.
Tall Barnes is nicely paired with Huynh’s more compact Watson, who is stolid and stylish in deep browns. Huynh makes nice work of balancing Watson’s devotion to his eccentric friend with exasperation at his methods, rolling his eyes in affectionate exasperation.
As for Irene, the great detective’s only intellectual equal, the tall, poised Van Vleet (garbed in Shireen Unvala’s impeccable Victorian gowns and puffed sleeves) imbues her with endearing curiosity, acuity, and warmth. And she and Holmes radiate a tentative, charmingly rom-com-style attraction.
Other than the rom-com vibe, and a few meta-literary nods, Dietz’s script plays it straight. And the show is a breezy pleasure. PSC’s production is beautifully appointed, graced with appealing tropes and tonal stylings, like the minor piano arpeggio hits (great sound by Seth Asa Sengel) that signal new suspense. Staging is rife with handsome moments: Watch Moriarty on the catwalk, scissoring petals off a red rose and dropping them down over Holmes below, who, on a rotating stage, keeps stepping to face up to him.
The show also features some dynamite character roles, especially the scene-stealing Zion Jang as the cockney criminal Sid Prince, who proudly deems himself “I’m a gun ‘n cudgels man” and who memorably imitates the nervous bark of squirrely minor criminal James Larrabee (Michael Grew). Laura Darrell is archly villainous as James’s sister-in-crime Madge, and I’m always pleased to see Tom Ford back on the PSC stage. He makes a worthy Moriarty, with a ponderously professorial beard and a jolly-demonic giggle.
“The Final Adventure” doesn’t reinvent the theatrical wheel or solve any of the pressing problems of our day. But it is a delightful romp and homage, executed with art and savvy. Like the original Holmes stories, “The Final Adventure” draws us toward all we wish we could solve, all the brilliance we wish were ours. Then, it reminds of the selfless connections that are within our reach.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com
SOON TO OPEN
The problematic feast of Thanksgiving is nigh, and the University of Southern Maine’s Theatre Department, offers us food for thought: Larissa FastHorse’s meta-theatrical “The Thanksgiving Play,” in which a vegan, a street performer, and an elementary school teacher join forces to device a play about our messed-up holiday. The show runs November 3–19.
Running in rep during roughly this same span of time at USM is Anne Washburn’s brilliant, archetypally mythic comedy “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play.” Set in a post-apocalyptic primitive society, it tracks survivors over 75 years, as people convey their fragmented memories of “The Simpsons,” and the films it spoofs, into new myths. The show runs November
12-20. FMI on both shows: https://usm-theatre.ticketleap.com
And in our present and future myths, given all that’s happened, what to make of straight white men? Mad Horse Theatre Company poses the question in its next show, Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men.” Ed and hie three sons get together for a rambunctiously boy-man Christmas, but then start thinking about the question themselves. The show runs Nov. 17–Dec. 11. FMI:
— Megan Grumbling