Dallas — There’s been a caper at the Wyly Theatre! Hundreds of audience members have had their money stolen by a group called the Dallas Theater Center, who perpetrated the crime via a lazy, one-dimensional adaptation of a play about a resurgently popular character called Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure. Just how was this crime committed? Let’s deduce the evidence.
This play is an adaptation, by Stephen Dietz, of an original 1899 production by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and William Gillette, who is famous for playing the role of the quirky detective onstage. The story is straightforward, for a Sherlock story. Granted, those unfamiliar with the stories will likely not notice the blatantly obvious twists coming from miles away. However, though Dietz first wrote his adaptation back in the mid-2000’s, even winning the Hugo Award in 2007, the Sherlock character has since experienced an amazing cultural resurgence. From the two Guy Ritchie films starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law as the famed detective and his trusty sidekick Watson, to the wildly popular BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the same roles and the American TV series Elementary with Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, Sherlock Holmes has arguably never been more popular.
To that end, a lot of theaters are capitalizing on the popularity, which is of note. It’d be hard to argue that the staging of these plays at this time is simply a coincidence.
Dietz’s adapted story, essentially the Doyle story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” places Sherlock (Chamblee Ferguson) at the end of his time as a detective. He’s on in years and Watson (Kieran Connolly) has long ago married and moved out of the flat they once shared. However, the appearance of the King of Bohemia (Hassan El-Amin) presents the aging men with one final case. The King is set to be married soon, but is haunted by a prior relationship with a woman named Irene Adler (Jessica D. Turner), a common foil and love interest for Sherlock in adaptations, but who only appears in the one aforementioned story.
Adler has love letters and a photograph of her and the King from years earlier when they were a couple, which she keeps, assumedly, as blackmail. The King, who is soon to be married, has tried to retrieve them through various means, both clean and dirty, to no avail. In the original story, this is the main plot. Find the photograph, essentially. However, because this is a hodgepodge stage adaptation, they have to force the most famous of Holmes’ villains, James Moriarty (Reagan Adair), into the plot.
What kind of blame is to be laid on Dietz is debatable. After all, he’s only—barely—adapting a play that was written in plain English just over a hundred years ago. Where the accomplishment is in that is also debatable.
That said, there is still something nefarious at play here. There is still a villain in this story. And his name is…Moriarty!
Kevin Moriarty, to be precise. Yes, it’s funny that both the director and villain of the show share a last name. It makes for cheap jokes, which will be fully exploited in this column.
Seriously though, as Artistic Director of the Dallas Theater Center, it’s safe to say that Moriarty has a lot of say on the production season. And while Dietz’s play may have won a Hugo Award, given for achievements in science fiction and fantasy writing, it’s decidedly simplistic and reeks of low-level amateur theater.
Any complexity lies in the typical Holmesian plot, but the characters are written in such a melodramatic, clichèd way that every twist and turn is telegraphed from far away. For instance, the King is originally supposed to be in disguise, but (Kevin) Moriarty has him enter in an audacious cape that only cartoonishly classic royals wear. Adler delivers every line as if she’s pulling one over on everyone, which she kind of is. Moriarty might as well be twirling a mustache. Watson is downright bumbling. And Sherlock strides and gesticulates whilst chewing heartily on scenery.
That’s not to say that the actors themselves aren’t good. Anyone familiar with the Dallas theater scene knows that actors like Ferguson and Adair are immensely talented. Considering this, if the play is viewed as a popcorn throwing-type melodrama, the performances are superb.
Ferguson specifically, as Holmes is known to do at times, nails the disguises and assumed identities he uses to get close to people in his investigation.
However, doing work like this is a waste of such talent. Sure, every theater needs crowd pleasers, but Dallas Theater Center, as the premier theater group in the area, has to be better than this. They’ll sell out, or come close to it, regardless. Like European theaters of old, going to DTC shows is as much about participating in the social structure of the city as it is to see theater. In which case, Moriarty and DTC should aim higher. There are plenty of “crowd pleasers” and classic favorites out there that are sure to serve as both critically successful and budget padding productions. Why run the risk of doing the play that Podunk Community Theatre or certain theaters that trade specifically in melodrama may do in the same season?
One truly great part of the show is Russell Parkman’s scenic design, with the Wyly stage in a thrust configuration, a Victorian-era proscenium arch and attractive backdrops and set pieces.
Of course, DTC is not alone. WaterTower Theatre also recently did a below-average Sherlock Holmes-inspired story. I even wrote an article about all the theaters doing Holmes adaptations this year. It’s everywhere.
So, after the investigation, who is to blame? Dietz’s completely unnecessary and not particularly remarkable adaptation? Moriarty’s over-the-top direction? The cultural resurgence of the character? No, it has to be something else.
Take a step back and look at all the evidence. Dietz, an otherwise capable playwright, does a simple adaptation of a formerly popular play and character. Warner Bros. Pictures commissions action films parading as Holmes films. The BBC adapts new Holmes stories for the modern age. And Moriarty and other directors around town choose to stage adaptations of Doyle’s source works.
Money. The culprit is money.
That said, it’s possible to make money off the popular property and still do it well. The BBC series is a prime example. This adaptation and production is not. Like at the end of the play, which is taken from another Doyle story, “The Final Problem,” Sherlock appears to die on stage at the Wyly.
Of course, though, he never stays dead. As Doyle once learned, he’s too popular for that.