Folks who say there's nothing to distinguish the arrival of fall in our desert home must not be devotees of the performing arts.
If they were, they would certainly realize that while fall's arrival is not characterized here by crisp air and falling leaves, it is recognizable by the explosion of plays, concerts and dance performances.
Last weekend, Arizona Theatre Company, Tucson's very own resident professional theater, kicked off the season with the world premiere of Jeffrey Hatcher's Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club. Hatcher must be developing a great fondness for the denizens of Tucson, and we for him: Over the last few years, ATC has commissioned and produced several Hatcher plays, including last year's Ten Chimneys and this Sherlock Holmes. Meanwhile, across town, Live Theatre Workshop is currently running his Three Viewings.
Hatcher has a winner with Sherlock Holmes. It's intelligent, clever, teasing, seductively engaging and just plain fun. ATC's production is an absolute delight. From the stunning yet understated set by John Ezell (which utilizes amazing projections by Jeffrey Cady), to the outstanding performances of a very capable cast, this Sherlock shines.
Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club is Hatcher's invention, for which he draws on the familiar and beloved characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle, and a novella by Robert Louis Stevenson published in 1878. There's much that feels familiar, which is always fun, but there is also much which feels fresh. It's a pleasing combination.
In this tale, the melancholy but reformed drug addict Holmes (Remi Sandri) hears of a group called The Suicide Club. The ever-curious Holmes is intrigued, and decides to check it out. He discovers—by joining under an assumed name, as is required of all members—that the club consists of men who, for various reasons, wish to terminate their lives, but haven't the taste for doing themselves in. The club provides a mechanism for making their dreams come true: There is a selection process in which an alluring tuxedo-clad lady presents to each member a top hat into which has been placed billiard balls—several white, and one black. Each man blindly reaches in and draws a ball; the one who selects the black one is the one whose life will be taken. The member to lose his life is dismissed from the room, and another drawing is conducted. This time, there are white balls with a red one, and the member who draws red is the person who will need to kill, by some means, the member who drew the black ball. During this round, the ball each member selects is to be hidden from the others, so that no one knows who will be the perpetrator of the suicide-by-murder.
But there is something about the club which troubles the ever-observant Holmes. For one thing, it's a small club, and some of the men have been there quite a while, meaning they've beaten the odds for choosing the black ball. How can this be? Holmes begins investigating these suspicious goings-on, and discovers a tangled web of international politics and power. It's a sticky wicket indeed.
ATC artistic director David Ira Goldstein, who also directs the production, has found just the right balance of mystery, magic and mischief in Hatcher's script. This is a sprawling show, with tons of set changes, actors playing multiple roles and an intentionally complicated story. But Goldstein has fashioned all of the elements of this complex production into a smoothly developing tale. Our interest rarely waivers, even during the first act, which bears the burden of setting up the payoff in the second. This command of our attention is critical, because if our minds wander, we'd miss mind-teasing information and important clues. Suspense is heightened by Roberta Carlson's original music, which, among other functions, underscores the billiard-ball-selection scenes, which always are tense.
Of course, all of the slick production elements would be useless without a super-sharp Sherlock. No worries; Sandri has immaculately created a Sherlock focused and contained, while—quite impressively—simultaneously aloof and warm. The tall, thin Sandri is attentive, taut and always poised to pounce on valuable information. He reminds one of a hound, lean and alert, his face tilted upward as though sniffing for clues in the wind. It is a masterful embodiment of one of the most well-known characters in literature.
It makes sense that in the period represented—the early 20th century—the story would be heavy with male characters, and those juicy roles abound. Jeff Steitzer wonderfully inhabits Dr. Watson, Holmes' medical adviser and confidant who is always protective of the depressive detective. Mark Anders is a likable Mr. Williams, seeking relief from the burdens of his life with his membership in the Suicide Club and his trays of cream puffs. Nicholas Bailey, James Cada, David Green and Roberto Guajardo also contribute effectively.
Hatcher has also managed to produce a couple of females who figure importantly in the intrigue. Celeste Ciulla and Alexandra Tavares give us well-wrought characters. Even though it's rather transparent that 50 years ago, a playwright would not have felt obliged to write some good roles for women, Hatcher's inclusivity deserves praise.
There are a couple of other things that ring a bit false about Hatcher's fabrication. For example, it would be perfectly fine to let the story stand as an international mystery without weighting it down with a bit of ponderous self-importance at the end. (I can't be specific without spoiling the ending.)
But as a whole, Hatcher has created a clever tale which ATC delivers skillfully and with good humor.