Watching the Detectives

This review could have easily been titled, “Deconstructing Holmesy,” but the multi-instrumentational singer/songwriter allusion above appropriately edges it out. In fact, the North American Cultural Laboratory (NACL) Theatre’s brilliant show, The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes, is a trifecta of movement, music, and words, with equal parts suspense/psychological exploration, layered character-driven comedy, and an original, indie-rocking soundtrack to enhance all of the above. It’s smart, quirky, fun, and at times reduced me to tears of laughter, my highest personal praise. Based on a story by director Brad Krumholz, who co-founded NACL Theatre in 1997 with Tannis Kowalchuk (starring as Sherlock Holmes’ ever-supportive partner in crime and narrator, Dr. John Watson), the play takes on the well-known characters of Arthur Conan Doyle and spins them into new, wonderful, and sometimes wacky configurations. Called in to investigate the bizarre murders of Dr. Jeremy Nietzsche and Dr. Kevin Freud, Holmes encounters a wily female detective, Jacqueline Derrida, played dynamically by Sarah Dey Hirshan, who cleverly pushes him to explore the limits of his legendary abilities, and even ultimately (to our amusement), his own identity and inner self, rarely seen in the crisp character.

Krumholz traces his mystery-reading roots back to Encyclopedia Brown (a.k.a. “America’s Sherlock Holmes in tennis sneakers”), which ultimately led him to read the Sherlock Holmes stories and beyond. The piece was developed in collaboration with the powerhouse ensemble who all act, move acrobatically, and step in and out of their characters into band roles to perform original songs reminiscent of everything from early David Bowie to The Velvet Underground to The Smiths (as well as the above-referenced Elvis Costello). Using the classic rock formation of bass, guitar, keyboards and drums, the “band” also features eccentric instruments like the accordion and harmonium for more unique flavor. Although also a collaboration, most of the music was written by Glenn Hall, who plays two solid supporting roles – Inspector Lestrade and Professor Roderick Champion. Brett Keyser, who brings his determined Sherlock Holmes full circle, complete with the unpredictable soul searching, wrote most of the poetic lyrics – a perfect fit for the rock-and-roll score as well as an effective expression of his journey.

It’s all a joy to watch. The songs cut into the immediate plot, but like dream sequences, they open a door into the inner world of the characters, and actually insert much more play room into the structure. The tightly choreographed movements do the same, providing yet another layer of stylized behavior, sometimes like interpretive dance, sometimes just Marx Brothers silly (again, an accomplishment), all the while continuing to enhance the story. The transitions, accompanied by lighting shifts designed by Juliet Chia, work as excellent scene-changers, and overall the style works much better than the traditional musical format would, where characters suddenly bursting into song can often feel contrived. Here, the comedy is so tightly woven, it actually transcends its own spoofyness to become more of a moving target; just when you think you know where it’s going, something else shifts your focus, or pops up to amuse or twist your expectations. This explicitly demonstrates NACL’s stated mission to “create innovative original work that is ensemble-based, utilizing devised methods of creation, heightened physicality, and song to create vivid theatre experiences.” That it most certainly does. Krumholz’s direction is swift, (he also plays guitar in the band as “Silent Sonny”), and his comedic ideas and writing are utterly inspired.

And our not-so-elementary dear Watson, is played by the female Tannis Kowalchuk, who slips in and out of her phony facial hair and booming voice to now and then reveal feminine attire and slinky behavior. More than mere cross-dressing, she expresses her character’s essence quite beautifully, and we come to understand Watson also on a deeper-than-expected level. His steadfast, unwavering support, undying love, and maybe even hero-worship, perhaps makes it an impossible love affair, but even more apparent: it illustrates the epitome of the successful work-spouse relationship. Whether fully noticed or not by the preoccupied Holmes, Watson is content to help out behind the scenes. He exhibits jealousy of the interloping detective Derrida, but his and Holmes' overriding mutual dependency is evident (and sweet). It feels exactly right, we just never saw Watson in quite this light before.

In fact, every characterization presented here is original and quirky. Liz Eckert does quintuple-duty in colorful supporting roles, and is especially funny as the clumsy and socially awkward lab assistant Belle Whittaker and the literally “over-the-top” Bishop Wilberforce, with her every interaction funny and memorable. Sarah Dey Hirshan’s Derrida is smart, cool, and collected, and her additional portrayal of the prop-enhanced Mountebank is a one-of-a-kind gem, hysterically executed.

The set design by David Evans Morris also works well, both as the band performance space as well as simple elements to clearly delineate the various locations. The play is so imaginative that it doesn’t need much, plus as you might suspect, these performers are actually capable of becoming set pieces themselves, such as the well-oiled horse and carriage bit, with mid-scene costume and/or character shifts, all lending fluidity without missing a beat.

NACL Theatre, which had been in residence at La MaMa E.T.C. for several years, now operates from their own home base in the Catskills, where they run a theater and artists residence and offer a multi-disciplinary performer training (classified into Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral work, what else?). They’re a great company with lots of “juice;” definitely don’t miss this highlight, and be on the lookout for more of their “uncanny appearances” in the future.

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