Friday, May 10, 2013

Review: (Montreal) Sherlock Holmes

Karl Graboshas (l), Jay Baruchel Photo by: Andrée Lanthier   
Not So Elementary
by Caitlin Murphy

Sherlock Holmes adaptations are in ready supply these days. With Guy Ritchie’s frenetic films, the modern-day BBC series, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and the NYC-set Elementary, featuring Watson as a woman, we seem quite culturally obsessed at the moment with re-imagining Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic sleuth.  Not surprisingly, this populous terrain is hard to stand out in. Though the Segal Centre’s highly-anticipated production is sumptuous and boasts incredible technical prowess, its trail ultimately runs cold.

Set where Sherlock ‘belongs’ – London, end of the 19th century – the play revolves around a proposed controversial ban on opium, the era’s vice of choice, and the mysterious disappearances and murders that result.  The script was written as a Segal Centre commission, by the multi-talented impresario, Greg Kramer, who tragically passed away right as his play went into rehearsal.

The show’s claim to being the hottest ticket in town though is of course its star, Jay Baruchel. 

From a technical and design standpoint, Sherlock Holmes is a triumph. There is so much to thrill the senses:  stunning projections with full-stage coverage evoke cityscapes, train stations, rainy nights at the docks, busy London streets, seedy slums and lush manors. We watch as surreal patterns meant to conjure an opium den ‘draw’ themselves onto flats.  Video design by George Allister and Patrick Andrew Boivin (who also created projections for the Centaur / NAC co-production, Innocence Lost) is simply breath-taking. A scene set on a train speeding in and out of tunnels, plunging us into and out of darkness, was also brilliantly executed – a perfect alchemy of the play’s technical and design teams’ genius. Indeed, often such elaborately technical sequences felt like theatre boldly defending itself against the assumed superiority of film.

The show’s claim to being the hottest ticket in town though is of course its star, Jay Baruchel. Montreal born, but Hollywood pedigree, Baruchel has largely made his film career playing befuddled underdogs.  His look is distinct – scrawny and squinty eyed – and he has a tendency to look mildly beset upon, a sort of Woody Allen meets Peter Falk. His Sherlock, with blood-shot eyes and a slight lisp, is well-served by his particular brand of twitchy energy. Not surprisingly though, a distinct tension from his film background seeps into Baruchel’s performance (this is his first professional stage appearance); one senses that he would rather be throwing out many takes than committing to anything defined or consistent. There’s certainly a playfulness that comes from this tension, but also a lack of command.

This Segal Centre Production is heavily infused with Sidemart Theatrical Grocery stalwarts: actors Gemma James-Smith, Kyle Gatehouse, Patrick Costello, Graham Cuthbertson, and, of course, director Andrew Shaver. Somehow though, the piece lacks that company’s usual flare for serving up the originally flavoured and unexpected. Their unique stamp feels most strangely absent in terms of characterization and chemistry. Most major characters come off as ciphers or stereotypes, struggling to find specific footing. 

Though the play is of course a mystery, there’s a distinct lack of tension, and an evenness of tone that sets in. The many many scenes start feeling like an onslaught of exposition and explication, which gets tiring. As the script breathlessly gallops through the many plot points, the production (which clocks in at 2.5 hours or more with intermission) is left with little breath to explore anything else. Stakes aren’t always clear, and relationships that are intended to be nuanced and charged – between Holmes and Watson, Holmes and Inspector Le Strade, Holmes and Professor Moriarty – actually feel ill-defined and flat.

One of the most enjoyable moments of the evening was actually a simple scene involving twin newspaper writers, who excitably finish each other’s sentences and frustrate Sherlock’s line of questioning. The scene had flow, humour, and character, and one could tell from the audience’s delight in it, that it cooked in a way that a lot of scenes weren’t.

For me, our enjoyment of Sherlock Holmes, or James Bond, or any other iconic character, never actually lies in the plots of their adventures, but in the pleasure of our familiarity with them as characters. We get to watch a character we’ve fondly come to know ‘do that voodoo that they do so well’, and empathize with the dull normals who struggle to keep up with them. This production had too much trouble keeping up with itself. And though the aesthetic brilliance of the piece brought true delight; I think the missing breath was where the deeper pleasures lay.

To May 28

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