The play may be called Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure, but last night's opening night performance is just the beginning of what we expect to be a thrilling run through November 7. The opening night crowd gave the actors a standing ovation and great comments were overflowing after the show. Kudos to all who worked so hard on this very tricky piece of theatre. We brought a lot of rich wonder to audiences at Wayside Theatre last night.
Tonight we open Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure at Wayside Theatre after two extremely successful preview performances on Saturday. As they say the devil is in the details. This show attracts a variety of audiences. First we have our regular theatre goers. Then we have folks who come to Wayside Theatre every October for the “mystery play” we do. Then we have the Sherlock Holmes fans. Each is looking for something different from the play. Those Holmes fans are looking to see how we, and playwright Steven Dietz handle the details. At some points it feels like they have their magnifying glass trained on the stage.
But that’s what it is all about. Delivering on expectations. Our production staging is very open. Scenes flow from one section of the stage to the other in a rather spectacular and seemingly random way, but as Holmes says, it takes a lot of planning to great a random event. Amidst all of this are the details of the plot and the details of the characterizations. The staging is so open that every moment feels like it is very naked on stage. There is no where to hide, so it forces the actors to be at the top of their game, along with our designers. Of course when that comes to special effects and big moments in the story we have to pull them off correctly. Just figuring out how much fog to release in the air has taken a lot of thought and planning. The angle we hold a prop makes all the difference in the world.
I had a talk with an audience member yesterday who loved the show. He’s a big Holmes fan, so much so that he kept insisting that I tell the audience in the curtain speech about the Holmes film opening on Christmas Day. I asked him if he was enjoying the production and he enthusiastically said he was. He kept harping on the upcoming film, and I asked him how much more he liked film than live theatre. He said he loved how film could immerse him in the locations and the environment, but that he relished (his word no mine) how we had created those locales and the environment so effortlessly on stage. He also loved the small details we had brought to the show. I reminded him that on film, it was much easier to get each moment and detail accurate than it was while doing so live on stage and he said the following:
“Oh, yes, you’re right. That’s why live theatre is so magical. It’s happening in front of your face and that’s what makes it so special and delicious.”
Oh, if we could only make everyone see those distinctions.
So much of working on this play, Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventureinvolves allowing the audience to follow the patterns that weave together in the mosaic of the great detective's mind, so that he can display his brilliant deductions. There's great communal joy in listening to Holmes spell out a series of "observations" that then lead to his conclusion. We sense he's going to smack us in the face with his obvious conclusion, but we follow each strand of the fabric to its eventual conclusion, as if we can't look ahead to see it twists and turns.
As we've been unfolding these wonderfully theatrical moments on stage, our job has been both to lay out these "unfoldings" clearly, but also to ground them in the reality that keep them from being mere flights of fantasy.
John Alcott, who is playing Holmes, is doing a brilliant job of letting us into the mind that seems to never stop processing. At this point he's starting to add some real flesh on to the bones of Holmes that I think will both surprise and delight the aficionados. We've got a week to go, and we're poised to really sink out teeth in a bit deeper in the next six days before the first performance.
This is turning into too much fun to call it work.
There's this great line in Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure where Sherlock, talking about Moriarty to Watson says,
We are two men who share a shadow; our every move betrays us—one to the other.
It has sort of inspired my staging and our production of the show as the story weaves in and out of various locations (Baker Street, Briony Lodge, the Stepney Gas Works, a train, etc....). Essentially nothing is as it seems as the very fragmented scenery is used in various ways to move in and out of these locales. One minute a chair might be in Holmes study, and the next that same chair might be in Briony Lodge. We're having fun pulling it together, and working to make the concept clear in the telling.
There's nothing more fun than watching good actors sink their teeth into good material. That's what I get to feast on every day in rehearsals for Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventurethat begins performances on October 10 at Wayside Theatre. John Alcott is a going to be a frightfully good Sherlock Holmes and watching him and David Maga develop the Holmes/Watson relationship is a, well, just pure joy. Of course just watching John Alcott go from playing John Brown to Sherlock Holmes is a treat in and of itself.
Here's a link to some early pre-opening press on the show and while it lays out what we're about, the article can't begin to convey the richness of this show. We move into the theatre this weekend to start rehearsing on stage and I'm getting anxious to get out of the rehearsal room and on to the boards.
Today we did the final two performances of Robert E. Lee and John Brown: Lighting the Fuse at Wayside Theatre. Closing a show is always a bittersweet feeling. The final bows are taken, the lights go off and immediately the technicians move in and the set starts coming down. while the actors embrace and say farewell as the period of life that they have spent together (in this case 7 weeks) comes to an abrupt end. Some move on to our next show here, and some we'll hopefully see here again down the road in another show. Tomorrow the next set for Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure starts getting assembled onstage and we pick up with a full day of rehearsals.
That rush into the next show makes the ephemeral nature of what we do even more powerful and poignant. Words written and said, images staged and executed, become but a memory, cherished by those who performed them, and hopefully cherished by those who witnessed them. Yes, every performance is different when it is live, because every audience is different, and those performers who do the work are just as human as those in the audience.
As bittersweet as it is, it is why I love the live theatre so much. You strive for perfection night in night out, giving it your all, hoping against hope that you, the words, and the audience meet in the same moment in time to create something magical. The minute you forget that's what you are after, is the minute you should get out of this business, in my opinion. Thanks to a terrific ensemble and production team, that made this production so special.
So, tonight we say goodbye to Robert E. Lee and John Brown: Lighting the Fuse for the second time. As a reminder we did this show in 2004 and this year's version is in essence a remount, but with enough substantial changes to make it brand spanking new. We also say goodbye to some of the great conversations that this play has generated with our audiences. So many find the historical events of the play revelatory, having forgotten or never been exposed to John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry. In today's politically charged climate, some are finding the play illuminating, and some are finding it scary, which as the play's author, makes me feel good about the work.
But this afternoon as we were all arriving for the final matinee, I had one of those conversations that left me wanting. A young African-American man came walking by the theatre. He was looking at the reviews we have posted out front of the theatre. He asked myself and a few other staffers what they play was about and I proceeded to explain that it was about John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry to free the slaves. He said he didn't know anything about that and that he thought Martin Luther King was the one who tried to free the slaves.
I wished we could have talked him into staying for the show. We've got so far to go in this country, and I fear we are increasing the mileage we have to travel with each passing year.
As an added bonus, here's what actor and fellow blogger, R. Scott Williams had to say about his visit to Lee & Brown.
We kick off rehearsals for Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure today at Wayside Theatre and amidst everything else we've got going on at the moment, I'm looking very much forward to the calm that comes over me when we walk into the rehearsal room. This piece walks a fine line, and we'll spend the next few weeks discovering it, and then figuring out whether or not we can walk it without falling off. This week is a tough one because we're still running Robert E. Lee and John Brown: Lighting the Fuse. It closes this weekend and then next week, we're full tilt boogie into Sherlock Holmes land. We'll get the show roughed in with blocking this week, and see what we have by Sunday.