Saturday, July 06, 2013

Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini

Sacred Fools present the new play by Jaime Robledo

review by Andrew Moore

Scott Leggett as Watson. Photo by Jessica Sherman Photography

Perhaps I should have seen Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes. I get the impression that had I seen the first play, the sequel would have been easier to digest. Despite the best efforts of a cast and crew who really endeavor to put on a great show, Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini was ultimately an empty experience for me.

It's difficult to delve into exactly why this didn't work for me without spoiling the end of the play, so consider yourself warned. Watson and Holmes, who have had a falling out after the events of the first play, are drawn together to solve a series of ritualistic murders that seem to involve the Ectoplasmic Man himself, Harry Houdini. As the plot thickens, reality itself begins to dissolve, and the final case of Watson's career shuffles off with his mortal coil. We are left with an incomplete and unsatisfying narrative, an unfortunate end for an otherwise enticing, magical evening of theatre.

Michael James Schneider provides an evocative unit set framed by latticework and incandescent bulbs. Matthew Richter paints this set with his lights, digging into his bag of tricks to add a pleasing aesthetic to the cast's pantomimes. The combination of sound and lighting design with low-tech theatrical solutions is a large part of this show's charm: a reenactment of a murder performed as though a silent film, complete with flickering lights;  a foot pursuit through Coney Island's carnival barkers and a carousel; the mental hall of mirrors Watson finds himself in -- all very well executed and exciting to take in.

Murder most foul. Photo by Jessica Sherman Photography

These clever solutions are the work of writer/director Jaime Robledo. Robledo has a keen mind for crafting theatrical solutions to staging problems. His stage is a funhouse of movement, and this is reason enough to take in Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini. Recalling how he staged the shuffleboard game between Houdini and Holmes brings a smile to my face. Delightful, inventive work.

The cast is simply wonderful. Scott Leggett's Watson is stately and endearing; a man conflicted, resolute in his fidelity to his lost wife, trying to come to terms with the loss but not quite ready to move on. Joe Fria brings a spritely, good-natured narcissism to his turn as Sherlock. He's brilliant yet obtuse, cunning yet clumsy. Donal Thomas-Cappello shines as Harry Houdini. Introduced as an affable American with a subtle air of menace, the character may fizzle in the second act, but Thomas-Cappello's commitment to the role never does. Graham Skipper is memorable in dual roles, as the buoyant sensationalist Pike and the wise-cracking bullscheisser, Freud.

Where Watson falls down for me is in the writing. It's a muddled script that doesn't know what it wants to be. An original yet relatively loyal take on Doyle's universe, an anachronistic romp, or perhaps some hybrid of the two? It seems this last approach is Robledo's target but the script lacks the focus to achieve this aim. When the plot twists -- or perhaps is abandoned in favor of an expedient close -- we are left with an unsatisfying and dreary end. The crimes our heroes are investigating and Houdini's ambiguity is all for naught. All the great stuff Robledo sets up doesn't pay off. Even as Watson realizes what has happened to him, it's not a mystery that he solves, piecing together what the events of the play add up to, but rather an understanding that feels handed to him.

It is frustrating, because I really wanted to like this show. It has everything going for it, save the most important thing. The quality stagecraft, earnest performances, and clever direction can't make up for where the show breaks down: the script.

Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini is exhibited Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm through July 27th, at the Sacred Fools Theater, 600 N. Heliotrope Dr. (Just south of Melrose and just west of Vermont.) Street parking is ample, but there is a pay lot at the theater. Tickets are available online.

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