Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew a thing or two about what might appeal to an audience: dinosaurs, magical creatures, creepy occult stuff, war stories. And, of course, there was the pipe-smoking, deductive-reasoning and decidedly odd resident of 221B Baker Street.
The exploits of Sherlock Holmes, his confidant, Dr. Watson, and a cavalcade of interesting, sometimes unsavory characters will be told again in brilliant detail this week and next in the Penobscot Theatre Company’s latest production — “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure.”
The show, which opens at 7 p.m. Wednesday, is based on an 1897 adaptation of two Holmes stories — “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Final Problem” — by playwright William Gillette. Contemporary playwright Steven Dietz took the original adaptation and updated it for modern audiences.
Theatrical adaptations of Holmes stories have been popular for decades, but what most audiences aren’t aware of is that many of the iconic trappings of Conan Doyle’s detective have their basis in theater.
“William Gillette, who wrote the first Holmes play in 1897, helped create a lot of the imagery that surrounds Holmes,” said Scott Levy, PTC’s producing artistic director and the director of this show. “The curved pipe he introduced because he thought it was a way for people in the balcony to see the actor’s face. The deerstalker cap isn’t in any of the stories, but it was in the play. The imagery is very much attached to the theatrical version.”
Sets and costumes were designed by longtime PTC collaborator Lex Liang, who has constructed a dark, atmospheric set based around a section of London Bridge. He has designed an array of gorgeous turn-of-the-century costumes, from beautifully tailored tweed suits to opulent evening gowns. Some things never change, though, so expect pipes, canes, caps and pocket watches in keeping with Holmesian tradition.
The Dietz version is equal parts action-adventure and romance, thanks to the two stories on which it is based. “The Final Problem” details the big showdown, as it were, between Holmes, played in this show by New York actor Erik Parillo, and his arch nemesis, the dastardly Professor Moriarty, played by local actor and director Ken Stack. “A Scandal in Bohemia,” deals with a mystery, yes, but also with Holmes’ only romantic dalliance, with the beautiful opera singer Irene Adler, played by local actress and artist Kat Johnson.
“It’s a romantic adventure,” said Stack. “And it’s a melodrama, so it definitely ups the acting. The world in which they all live is huge, so you have to bring yourself up to that level of reality. It’s like ‘Indiana Jones.’ It’s a big, fantastic world.”
“Steven Dietz has done a remarkable job combining multiple stories,” said Levy. “And not only are ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ and ‘The Final Problem’ combined, but there are snippets throughout it from eight or 10 different stories. It’s really wonderful.”
The show zips and zings through deductions and inferences, fights and truces, disguises, sneaky discoveries and strange characters, such as the over-the-top King of Bohemia, played by Gibran Graham, and the downright nasty bad guys, James Larrabee and Sid Prince, played by Allen Adams and Bernard Hope, respectively. Rounding out the cast is Rich Kimball as dear old Dr. Watson and Abby Hayward as the maid, Madge.
“The show is very fast. It’s a much quicker show than I anticipated,” said Parillo, who is making his Penobscot Theatre debut with this production. “There are a lot of layers to Holmes. He is very repressed, in a lot of ways. He doesn’t really understand how to be romantic with Irene. She messes him up. She makes him lose concentration. And that really, really bugs him.”
After all, Sherlock Holmes is very, very, very good at one thing — using his immense intellectual powers to solve mysteries and problems, and to help bring bad guys to justice. His bedside manner can, at times, be rather brusque, to put it mildly.
“His morals are very black-and-white. Holmes believes things are right or wrong. He is very focused on what he does, and that’s it,” said Stack. “As a character, he’s very flawed. That’s the kind of hero that we like. He was, in a way, a precursor to the superhero, though he doesn’t have any actual superpowers, obviously. Before Batman and Spider-Man, there was Sherlock Holmes.”
Sherlock Holmes waxes and wanes in popularity — there was a big revival in the 1970s, when several shows were staged on Broadway and in London. Currently, Holmes fervor is brewing again, thanks in part to a Guy Ritchie film set for release this fall starring Robert Downey Jr. in the deerstalker cap. The Penobscot Theatre, however, was ahead of the trend.
“If I were to compare Holmes to anyone, it would be James Bond,” said Levy. “But many people don’t know that the TV character ‘House’ is based on him. Think about it: House’s best friend on the show is Dr. Wilson, he has a drug addiction, he uses a cane, and he’s kind of a jerk, though he’s incredibly intelligent. Holmes never really goes away. He just gets reinvented.”
“Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure” opens in previews at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 10, at the Bangor Opera House. Shows are scheduled at 7 p.m. June 11 and 18; 8 p.m. June 12, 19 and 20; 2 p.m. June 14, 20 and 21; and 5 p.m. June 13. For ticket information, call 942-3333 or visit www.penobscottheatre.org.