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Body Politic Theatre

Ninety-five years ago, Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill Sherlock Holmes. Feeling oppressed by the great detective’s celebrity, and anxious to get out from under what had become a somewhat too successful sideline, Doyle literally wrote Holmes off.

But it didn’t work. Fans demanded a resurrection, and Doyle finally complied. Outmaneuvered by his own creation, Doyle lost not only his artistic autonomy while he lived but his historical autonomy after death: today, Doyle’s name survives for most of us only in connection with Holmes’s, while Holmes does very nicely indeed without Doyle–showing up in all sorts of movies, stories, and plays Doyle never contemplated. Once again, Sherlock’s turned the tables.

It’s a fairly banal irony: the otherwise unremarkable talent becoming simultaneously exalted and enslaved by a lucky encounter with genius. But Charles Marowitz plays entertainingly with it in Sherlock’s Last Case, teasing out its juicy little Chinese-box resonances–getting at its various levels and twists.

And all, appropriately enough, without once mentioning Doyle.

In Doyle’s place, there’s Dr. Watson. Looking and acting at first like the usual wide-eyed bumbler for whom Holmes has to dot every investigative i, Marowitz’s Watson turns out to be a wide-eyed bumbler with grievances. Grievances, grudges, and an abiding hatred for Holmes. “You consider yourself quite a sleuth, dear Sherlock,” Watson tells his so-called friend at an especially desperate moment. “How is it that in all your many exploits, or should I say ‘our exploits,’ you never noticed one recurring symptom? . . . I refer to–a wince. A slight, infinitesimal shiver which ran through my nervous system every time you asked me to corroborate some brilliant discovery of your own. A wince which punctuated every deft comment you ever uttered in correcting the muggy little obscurities and confusions of my own pathetic mind. A wince which, if it could speak, would have said: You arrogant, supercilious, egocentric, narcissistic, smug, and self-congratulatory bastard.”

Oppressed by the great detective, and anxious to get out from under, Watson decides to murder him.

And Marowitz sees to it that he’s well worth murdering. Everything Watson calls this Holmes is justified. A self-proclaimed self-admiring Ubermensch, Holmes loves to stress the distinctions between his exquisite mind and Watson’s woollier one. “Nonsense, my dear Watson,” he says. “Any schoolboy using elementary intelligence and an applied grammar-school education could have arrived at exactly the same conclusion. Assuming he was supremely gifted, of course.”

Marowitz renders Holmes despicable partly to make Watson sympathetic. But only partly. In a more general way, he’s out to subvert the whole Holmes mystique. To rotate the conventional image enough so that we can see its tyrannical underside–the insufferable perfection implicit in every “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

Which is exactly what Doyle must have seen when he tried and failed to get out from under. Really, there’s not just one, but three attempts on Holmes’s life in this show: Watson’s predation, Marowitz’s deconstruction, and Doyle’s revenge.

Notions like these make Sherlock’s Last Case intriguing. Roger Mueller’s direction makes it fun. Like Marowitz, Mueller knows that a deconstruction’s basically just a parody with an MFA, so he lays on all sorts of silly, gratuitous touches–like the lurid, Day-Glo blue liquid that figures in Watson’s homicidal plot or the exploding skeleton engineered by special-effects designer Geoff Binns-Calvey.

Mueller’s playfulness backfires badly, however, when the lights go down and his cast performs the last seconds of the play in the dark. Marowitz doesn’t call for any such effect in his script, and Mueller’s decision to introduce it only serves to blunt what would otherwise have been a disconcertingly bitter denouement. The point at which Mueller turns out the lights is the point at which his comedy ceases to be playful and becomes evasive.

Larry Baldacci makes a nasty but shallow Sherlock, the lack of shading in his merely competent performance serving to throw our entire focus on Larry Brandenburg’s Watson. Fortunately, Brandenburg can more than handle our entire focus. I’d love to wax poetic about Brandenburg’s talents, as demonstrated in this and other shows. But I’m not sure I can. He just comes across as this average guy who shows up and does everything right. You can watch him for a long time–lulled by his unprepossessing, second-banana looks–before you realize how completely he’s bypassed your defenses. How he’s started feeding information directly to your heart. There’s nothing shallow or evasive in Brandenburg’s Watson. There are no cutesy blackouts in his performance. Just a quiet, slightly ridiculous man who’s taken much more than he can stand.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.