In the opening scene of writer-director Jaime Robledo's new play, Watson, at Sacred Fools Theater, the corpulent title character (Scott Leggett) wanders into London's 221-B Baker Street, having been advised by a Gypsy to "go back to where it all began, before it was too late." The sleuth, Sherlock Holmes (Joe Fria), whose adventures Watson has followed and documented, died some time ago — or so Watson believes. But nothing is quite what it seems. And this truism is the foundation for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, for the slate of movies and TV programs that followed and, now, for Robledo's fanciful homage to the entire literary-cinematic heap of Holmesophilia.
The play was born in the theater's "Serial Killers" series, a late-night competition of submitted sketches, performed almost on the fly, after which the audience votes on which of the multiple shows will survive, and have the plot continued, the following week.
This is a formula for the kind of wacky inventiveness, in writing and performance, that similarly informs Impro Theatre's literary goofs, such as Jane Austen Unscripted and Dickens Unscripted — among many more genre-busters in which the performers impart love letters to authors of yore while dancing on their graves.
It would be beside the point to recount the plot. Let's just say it concerns Queen Victoria, Sigmund Freud (both played by the gut-bustingly droll French Stewart), double agents and secret intel involving a competition for the possession of Cyprus between the Ottoman Empire, led by Abduhl Hamid; and the Russians, represented by Czar Alexander III. (Both roles are played by puppets.)
In order to fathom what the hell is going on, the coked-up Holmes and his somewhat reluctant sidekick, Watson — whose adventures are placing his marriage to Mary Watson (CJ Merriman) at risk — embark on an odyssey by train and boat and horse and air balloon from Victoria Station to Budapest to the top of a minaret in some unspecified Muslim country, via Dover and Vienna. Oh, yes, they're pursued by the villainous Professor James Moriarty (Henry Dittman), who may or may not be a figment of Holmes' cocaine-induced paranoia.
In case this sounds too cinematic for the stage, consider how the walls of scene designer Erin Brewster's London flat fold away and open up to flights of theatrical devices. Holmes and Watson twist their way blindly around a sheet that represents the infamous London fog. Stagehands dutifully move blocks to provide portable landings for the prancing feet of Holmes and Moriarty, as they traverse the upper ridges of Dover's white cliffs. A quartet of characters encircles a suspended chandelier, while a stagehand makes whissshing and whoooshing sounds, in order to depict the floating visage of a hot air balloon. The landscape below is merely described and then conjured by the audience in a scene that brings the wistfulness of perspective upon an adventure that's both parody and mystery, caught on the same breeze.
The visual wonder is complemented by Andrew Amani's balletic fight choreography and fueled, aurally, by Ryan Johnson's recorded original score, performed on cello, viola and violins.
Fria has an odd body shape, a robust and athletic build with contrapuntally sloping shoulders. His Holmes is a neurotic cousin to Buster Keaton — fleet-footed with quick and precise comic instincts. It's a gorgeous performance, surpassed only by one tour de force riff in which Dittman portrays five characters at Victoria Station (a husband, his wife, a train conductor, an urchin beggar and a policeman) almost simultaneously, by literally changing hats.
If one has any desire for petty carping, it's easy to point to some English accents that hit the perimeter of the dartboard, and Yankee phrases, such as "different than," which should be "different from." There's also a reference to throwing some item "in the trash" rather than "in the rubbish bin." Etc. None of this is reason to stay away from this delightful and at times inspired production, with moments of comic mastery stemming from the traditions of vaudeville.
The danger of what isn't known is the most enticing aspect of Jordan Harrison's new play, Futura, now in an extended run at Pasadena's Theatre @ Boston Court. A college professor (Bonita Friedericy) glares at us, her class, referencing the techniques of charismatic teachers to appear that they're thinking on their feet (an act) and to appear to be just like the class. "I'm not like you," she says. "I know more."
Boy, does she ever.
The title refers to the sans serif font designed by Paul Renner, and the play's opening soliloquy, a monument of erudition and beautifully delivered by Friedericy, concerns the history of typography, delivered by an expert who's slipping mentally off the rails. Her speech is an ode to the dead art of handwriting, and what was lost when expression powered by the hand yielded to expression powered by the keyboard. There are synapses in the brain that shut down when a word is typed rather than written, she insists. And the shutting down of both knowledge and privacy forms the crux of Harrison's play, which is built on a conspiracy theory: Handwritten words, notes on paper, are utterances that can be either shared or confidential, whereas there is no confidentiality when words are entered into a computer (which was invented for espionage).
What emerges as the play careens from the elegance of the opening aria to a futuristic, X-Files dystopia is a stock hostage drama in which the professor is kidnapped by her "late" husband (Bob McCracken), who's leading an underground terrorist campaign against the Company (which has evidently replaced the Government). The Company appears to have deleted entire museum-shrines of literature, dutifully entered into computer memory banks, in order to willfully promote ignorance and to control the population. And the promotion of ignorance has a long-standing tradition in our culture.
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The professor's beef is that her husband's campaign is beside the point, or points, poured and smudged from the tips of pens. It's a romantic, anachronistic plea for the sanctity of written words, and libraries that hold books, and what that preserves within us — the ability to concentrate, to meditate, to be human and humane rather than guinea pigs at keyboards.
Nice performances also by Edward Tournier and Zarah Mahler as the husband's militant cohorts. But even Jessica Kubzansky's sleek staging, amplified by John Zalewski's sound design, can't bridge the chasm between the linguistically and historically bountiful eloquence of the opening soliloquy and the comparatively trite theatrical devices that follow. The professor is taken hostage, held blindfolded between a poem and a thriller, like the play itself. It's hard to make or to receive a ruminative point about privacy and the beauty in the curve of a letter when there's a gun at your head.
WATSON | By JAIME ROBLEDO | Presented by SACRED FOOLS THEATER, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, L.A. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. (added perfs Thurs., Nov. 18, and Dec. 2, 8 p.m.); through Dec. 11 | (310) 281-8337
FUTURA | By JORDAN HARRISON | Presented by THEATRE @ BOSTON COURT, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; through Nov. 7 | (626) 683-6883