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Jack the Ripper does not appear either by reference or in person in Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure, which opened at Central Piedmont Community College on October 28. But the world that the infamous murderer electrified with his horrific killing spree was home to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his most enduring character. In fact, it is the psyche of the late Victorian era – the fascination with the creepy and uncanny, the insistence on propriety and order – that fed Holmes’s popularity then and perhaps perpetuates it now.
An extraordinary tension marked the turn of the last century, in England and across Europe. On the surface, society was as clearly defined, as rigidly shaped, as a woman’s corset. But within that well-trussed world, chaos constantly threatened to erupt. A murderer could gruesomely disembowel five women and never be caught. A portrait could become aged and disfigured while its subject remained young. A respectable doctor could drink a potion and transform into a monstrous criminal.
Sherlock Holmes embodies that tension. A strange man riddled with quirks (such as his exhaustive knowledge of cigarette smoke) and plagued by a desperate need to “escape the commonplace” of daily life (hence his cocaine habit), Holmes is simultaneously the defender of pure reason, the one man who can explain the inexplicable and solve the insolvable merely by “observing” rather than “seeing.”
The CPCC Theatre production hints at the weird beneath the normal. In designer James Duke’s beautiful set (kudos to carpenters Mandy Peeler, Zack Philemon, and the students who built it), a skull peers from the mantle in Holmes’s well-appointed study. In the first act, Holmes pulls out his needle and syringe and plunges it into his arm. And at intermission, Mussorgsky’s ominous Night on Bald Mountain rumbles through the speakers. But this play by Steven Dietz, based on an 1899 work by Conan Doyle and William Gillette, and the current production of it find more order in the universe than chaos.
The play combines two stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” adding original plot elements to weave them together. These stories contain the only two characters who can match wits with the matchless Holmes: Irene Adler and Professor Moriarty. Adler is a beautiful and brilliant opera singer who was once in love with the King of Bohemia. Moriarty is the mastermind of the underground world.
In this incarnation, these two enigmatic characters – like Holmes, himself – have lost some of their mystery. Adler evokes not just a raised eyebrow and a thoughtful look from the detective, but outright declarations of love and a juicy romantic kiss. Moriarty is less the unpredictable and ubiquitous Cheshire Cat of crime than a strong-armed Godfather.
But the CPCC Theatre cast, directed by Tom Hollis, brought these tamer characters to life with enthusiasm. Hank West, an excellent actor with a long and productive history on Charlotte stages, was an endearing and clever Holmes. Tom Scott, another prolific local actor, was his sincere and faithful Dr. Watson.
Glynis Robbins played the charming Irene Adler, a woman scorned by the buffoonish King of Bohemia (David Cruse). A sinister-looking Philip Robertson was the villainous Moriarty.
Brian Holloway and Kristin Mauro gave convincing performances as members of Moriarty’s gang. Perhaps the most evocative performance came from Jim Greenwood as the criminal side-kick Sid Prince. Not only his accent, but his vocal timbre, body language, and ruddy complexion were absolutely pitch-perfect for a lawbreaker from London’s lower orders.
Towards the end of the play, after outsmarting his arch enemy, Holmes announces “all is now in order.” It is the conclusion the Victorians yearned for. But in Conan Doyle’s stories and the world from which they came, the restoration of order was only a temporary escape from the frightening commonplace of the bizarre.
The show continues through 11/6. For details, see the sidebar.