by Sarah Haley
The stories of Detective Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson have remained in the popular imagination since their introduction through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story A Study in Scarlet in 1887. Their popularity has allowed them to grace many stages, including the Ottawa Little Theatre. Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily, written Katie Forgette and directed by Val Bogan, is full of talent and potential. However, the unimaginative script and lack of originality make this performance unsatisfying. Despite the high design quality and talented cast and crew, the simple fact remains that the characters lack depth, the direction is ambivalent, and the writing is poor.
The story begins when the actress Lillie Langtry is robbed of her letters containing scandalous personal information. Lillie and her friend, the playwright Oscar Wilde, enlist the help of Holmes and Watson to recover the letters. The plot thickens when Holmes’ arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, graces the stage. A battle of logic and wit, Holmes must recover the letters before Lillie Langtry’s reputation is destroyed.
While Sherlock Holmes is typically the dominating presence on stage, the true star of this production is undoubtedly the stage design. The set, designed by David Maglandry, shows enormous attention to detail. Despite the abundance of extraneous Victorian trinkets, it does not distract or overpower the stage. Instead, the decorations draw the audience into the Victorian era. The focus on Victorian aesthetics is amplified through the impersonation of historical set design.
The playing space is contained within three domineering wallpapered walls angling out to the fourth wall, the audience. This highly structured set invokes the Victorian stage aesthetics and its time period to a high degree of accuracy. This adherence to Victorian stage design, however, is not continuous throughout the performance. The scenes within Moriarty’s domain, like his ‘secret lair,’ are sparse and unstructured. This opposition to the structured three wall set presented in Holmes’ domain underscores the chaos of Moriarty. The juxtaposition of these design concepts pushes the realms of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ into sharp contrast. Unfortunately, the attention to detail that is so prevalent in the aesthetics of the show is lacking in the performance itself.
There are dangers that come with performing well known and well-loved characters. It is a delicate tightrope walk between staying true the characters and breathing originality into the role. This production showed no such originality. The characters are replications of Doyle’s characters, but Douglas Cuff’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is dull and unexciting while Seamus O’Brian’s Doctor Watson is plagued with boyish exuberance. The classic duo of Holmes and Watson becomes a caricature because of the attempt to remain true to the characters’ original inception. Ian Gilles’ portrayal of Moriarty was unengaging because there was no apparent motive behind his crimes. Moriarty is an infamous criminal mastermind, destined for greater feats than blackmail, and if Gillies’ maniacal laugh is any indication, he is destined for a better rendition of the villain as well.
This one-dimensionality is apparent throughout the production, however, there are reprieves in Lindsay Laviolette and Ellen Manchee’s portrayals of Lille and Kitty Dupree respectively. Their conversation about the double standards and pressures of women in the workplace and in the home is honest and emotional, while also relevant and timeless. Another breath of fresh air was Riley Stewart’s portrayal of Oscar Wilde. Classically flamboyant, Stewart’s physical comedy and punchy one-liners provide much needed comic relief. It is the combination of Stewart’s comedic timing and the clever plagiarism of Wilde’s own words that creates this larger than life character. The script itself, however, could use more of Wilde’s dramaturgical abilities.
The true flaw of this performance is not the creative team or the actors, both of whom show talent and potential. The flaw lies in the script itself. It lacks the fundamental elements of a mystery. It exposes the villain’s plot, it is almost entirely exposition, and it lacks surprise and intrigue. A mystery, in the traditional sense, should present the tools for the audience to solve the mystery from the start (i.e. ‘clues’), and the logic of the mystery should only become clear at the culmination of the story. For all the talk of the difference between seeing and observing, the play falls short of its own criticism. The audience is forced to see the story unravel without the ability to observe and engage in the mystery it claims to contain. The sloppy writing is all too obvious because it relies so heavily on dialogue. Without action to break up the constant chatter, the play becomes tedious and uninteresting.
Stronger direction may have been able to salvage this production, but as it stands, the writing hinders this performance. The characters feel one dimensional because of the poor writing, but also because like Moriarty, they lack direction and reason. The discussion and motivation behind Kitty’s villainy are only barely touched upon. Had her plight and struggles as a woman been further expanded, this show could have more intriguing. The characters lack depth and suffer from missed opportunities. Oscar Wilde is comedy in this play, but he could resemble the historical figure more. While he was a genius of comedy, Oscar Wilde suffered a great deal. He makes a subtle mention of his lifestyle to Holmes, but the true story of Wilde is discarded for a few laughs. The reduction of this character story is a lamentable aspect of the play, and once again, it removes the chance to add deeper meaning to this production.
The fate of this production is a shame. It has potential in the artistic and technical talents of the cast and crew, but at its core, it fails from bad writing, bad storytelling and a lack of clear direction. With the talent contained in this production, it has the potential for a fantastic performance of the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, but Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily is simply not that mystery.
Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily
Written by Katie Forgette
Directed by Val Bogan
Lighting and Set Design by David Magladry
Sound Design by Robert Krukowski
Costume Design by Glynis Ellens, Rachel Hauraney, Rebecca Morris and Donna Soussana
Sarah Haley is a student at Carleton University. She is currently pursuing a degree in English Literature with concentrations in Medieval Studies and Theatre.