The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
December 3, 2008
In the director's notes to North American Cultural Laboratory's (NACL) The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes, Brad Krumholz discusses his experiences reading the Encyclopedia Brown series as a kid, which led him to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic sleuth. "I would read them slowly," he writes. "Looking to each utterance for a clue...I have come to understand that my experience of the world has not only been shaped by his characteristics, but by the act or reading him. I read my way through the world." Krumholz goes on to say that he thinks everyone does this to a certain extent. We "put together clues...of the world into solutions, or stories," and we are shaped by the stories we are told. For each story, for each circumstance, we come to think there is one truth behind it.
At the end of these notes, Krumholz asks the audience to consider the alternative: that different people can take the same clues and come up with an entirely different set of interpretations. "We would like to invite you to take a deep breath, let your minds become supple and fluid, and entertain the idea that appearances can be deceiving and even, at times, uncanny."
True to his word, The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes is full of the mysterious. It opens with a spry and dancing shadow jittering across the stage. It is narrated by a Dr. John Watson whose gender changes from scene to scene. There's also a nifty interrogation scene in which a murder suspect—a scientifically backward clergyman named Bishop Wilberforce—grows before our very eyes. And then there's the appearance of a wooden box sprouting a bearded, bespectacled head and very short legs that speaks in a gravelly voiced Irish accent and performs a magic trick for the audience.
These curiosities serve to tell the story of Sherlock Holmes and Watson as they try to solve the murders of Dr. Jeremy Nietzsche—killed with a fountain pen by a group of chimpanzees on which he was conducting human behavioral experiments—and Dr. Kevin Freud, killed in a bathroom uniquely designed to study the properties of sound. And then there is oddity of Holmes's rival, Jacqueline Derrida, whose insights into the investigation, the murderer, and Holmes's biggest adversary—an unseen Moriarity—send him spiraling into an identity crises that he spends the second half of the play struggling to crawl through.
On top of these oddities is the rock band consisting of cast members who back up Holmes's songs that are sung at intervals throughout the play and are meant to give the audience a deeper understanding of his internal experience and the play's meaning. The theatre's acoustics combined with the band's volume made the lyrics difficult to understand.
It's a dizzying experience; not only because of the layers involved but also because of the pace and style at which they are laid out. Krumholz presents the play as a circus and a rock concert. Then there is the fact that the text is dense and the scenes contain a lot of information, which makes it very difficult to see the clues the characters are uncovering or to discover the clues the cast has left for us to find. And the sense of space is minimal so while it doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out where each scene is taking place, it takes a monumental effort to figure why the characters are in each scene and what, if any, effect they have on one another. It's a very difficult play to follow. It overwhelms the senses, denying the audience a chance to suss out the deeper implications of the actions. The result is an incomprehensible but fascinating muddle of clues lacking the soil in which the ideas can take root.
This is a shame because the talent and intelligence are obviously there. Krumholz is working with a skilled set of actors and together they are capable of creating clean and dynamic images. The ensemble works with precision and skill. The work they do to create the growing Bishop is seamless and their physicality gives them the opportunity to play a broad range of characters and create inventive stage pictures.
This brings me back to the idea in the director's notes about the different ways we interpret the same clues and the request that we take a deep breath and "entertain the idea that appearances can be deceiving." This agreement is one that audiences instinctively make when they go to the theatre. When the lights go down, audiences immediately give themselves to the action because they want to see what happens. They may be skeptical, they may bring certain prejudices, but they also want to be drawn in, entertained, and, on a really good night, astonished by a truth, whatever that may be.
The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes, in its present form, will not reveal anything new about the nature of reality. But if you sit back and let the chaos of the production wash over you, you are sure to find an element or two on which to cling.