Inside East Hollywood's Sacred Fools Theatre on a recent Sunday afternoon, actor Donal Thoms-Cappello is capering through a bizarre step of percussive, deliberate foot stomps, which alternate with clanking sound effects.
"No," a voice from the gloom interrupts, "there are three clanks." A shadow makes its way to the stage where, under the lights, it takes on the lanky features of writer-director Jaime Robledo, who sidles up to Thoms-Cappello and a stagehand pantomiming a Coney Island carousel to demonstrate: "So the first one should be bang [stomp], bang [stomp], and you can both laugh." Thoms-Cappello and Robledo both let out a laugh in time with the final stomp.
The step being rehearsed is part of a runaway-carousel scene, ripped from Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, for Robledo's new show, Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini, beginning June 21. It is the kind of big, Broadway-grade spectacle on a small-stage budget that has given Robledo a reputation as the poor man's Julie Taymor -- the director who can stage the impossible.
That reputation was sealed in 2010, when Robledo's first satiric-vaudevillian riff on Conan Doyle (and this show's direct prequel), Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes, captured the imagination and praise of audiences and critics alike. It proved a huge hit for Sacred Fools and a big career boost for Robledo, who went on to stage the theater's boffo Buster Keaton bio-drama, Stoneface, to even greater acclaim last year. (That show has been picked up by the Pasadena Playhouse for a main-stage production later this season.)
During a break, the writer-director admits that he enjoys the challenge that comes with telling big stories on a small stage. "If a scenario scares the crap out of me, that's when I know I have to do it," Robledo says matter-of-factly. "I don't let any of the difficulties connected with putting it up deter me."
In the first Watson, those difficulties included such eventual coups de théâtre as staging a hot-air balloon flight, a hair-raising fight on a Turkish minaret and a re-creation of the Cliffs of Dover as Holmes and Watson pursued their quarry (and Holmes' very personal demons) across the European continent.
The new show ups the ante, taking the British crime-fighters across the Atlantic to the wilds of turn-of-the-century New York and a multiple-murder mystery involving spiritualism and Houdini himself. The runaway carousel is merely one of a number of choreographed stage stunts that comprise a re-creation of old Coney Island, which include Watson and Holmes riding a roller coaster and in a burlesqued foot chase through the stalls of the midway.
What the two Watsons have most in common, however, is an inventive visual wit and wryly anachronistic sense of humor, which pays fond homage to the Holmesian universe of Victorian scientific rationalism and cold deductive logic even as it gleefully tears it apart laugh by satiric laugh.
"There's a lot of irony in there," Robledo says. "I make Beatles jokes, because there's a scene that takes place in Liverpool. I make a joke about the Flying Spaghetti Monster, if you know what that is. But [the comedy succeeds] because I'm writing for certain [actors], and I know how they make things funny. ... So Joe Fria [who plays Holmes] has this rubbery body and this just insanely sharp, improv-comedy mind. Our new Freud is Graham Skipper, who was Herbert West in [the L.A. Weekly Award-winning] Re-Animator: The Musical, and he's got this high energy bursting from within -- just bat-shit insane kind of humor, which is a little different from [original Freud] French Stewart, who is a different kind of clown."
Where Robledo's Watson franchise most departs from Conan Doyle is in its elevation of Sherlock's underrated sidekick to star billing. If Watson isn't exactly the hero of the story, neither is he merely Holmes' stooge. The idea for the job promotion was inspired in part by Robledo's admiration for more recent, psychologically complex takes on Holmes that include the 1971 film adaptation of playwright James Goldman's They Might Be Giants and Nicholas Meyer's 1974 novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.
Like those works, Robledo set out to "really kind of delve into that friendship between Holmes and Watson, and how they operate and what they mean to each other, and how one helps the other." And while he refuses to put explicitly Freudian labels on his creations, he doesn't deny that there is a bit of id and superego at work in their partnership.
"In my world," Robledo says, "Watson is the adult and Holmes is the child."
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Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini opens Friday, June 21.