BENNINGTON - The game is afoot at Oldcastle! Opening last weekend and running for the next two weeks, Oldcastle Theatre Company's theater on Main Street hosts "Sherlock Holmes--Knight's Gambit," a new mystery story written specifically for small theaters like Oldcastle by playwright Paul Falzone. Directed by Eric Peterson, Oldcastle's Producing Artistic Director, the show captures all the suspense, wit and intrigue of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous stories using a single set and a small cast.
While the production itself may be relatively modest, the scale of the story is as ambitious as we've come to expect from the Holmes canon. Set in 1905, towards the end of the detective's career, Falzone's story hinges on events that take place around the city of London and elsewhere in Europe - even though his main characters never really leave Holmes' famous Baker St. apartment. With so much important plot activity taking place offstage, Falzone makes the play feel as far-reaching and complex as audiences have come to expect from a Holmes mystery, basically tricking the audience into forgetting about the small cast and set.
Along these lines, the greatest success of this original show is it's ability to keep the action unfolding at all times -even when nothing seems to be happening on the stage. In reality, Holmes, played impressibly by Nick Plakias, spends a large portion of the show explaining different things to Richard Howe's Watson and their ally Inspector Lestrade, played by Bill Tatum. These explanations are vital to the audience's understanding of the mystery at hand, and they give Plakias the change to show off his Holmesian mannerisms. However, even in these moments of pure explanation, the dramatic situation is in constant, unseen motion. This technique of simultaneous exposition and implied action keeps the audience engaged and entertained in every scene, even when Watson isn't waving around his trusty Army revolver.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Sherlock Holmes mystery without a few action sequences. Gunplay, explosives, fight scenes, confrontations and disguises all come into play throughout the show, keeping the tension and excitement levels high. Falzone also puts Holmes and his team in a position where they're constantly at risk, forcing the audience to keep their guard up just like the the characters.
Following yet another time-tested Holmes tradition, the play is also built around historical events of the era, a technique that Falzone uses to his advantage in first developing the story. Explaining his writing process, Falzone says "How I write a play is to start reading the history of a period. This is 1905, and there was a lot going on in 1905. You start reading a lot of history, and you start saying ‘well that's interesting and that's interesting, now if I drop these fictional characters into that history, what happens?'"
The historical context is just one of many ways that Falzone leaves clues for the audience throughout the production, giving everyone the opportunity to figure out the mystery along with the characters. The amount of historical detail is also one aspect of the show that Falzone and the director Eric Peterson, who have worked together for over 40 years, have fine-tuned for the Oldcastle edition of the show, which first opened Sept. 19 at the Cider Mill Playhouse in Endicott, N.Y.
"We started the play in Endicott, then we came here and cut it, and it got better." Said Falzone. The historical detail, he said, "sounds very interesting when you read it. Its not that interesting when you hear an actor act it. It bogs it down. We didn't need as much of it as we had, and we took it out."
For some writers, bringing these immortal characters to life might seem like a daunting task, but Falzone said he didn't feel intimidated. "They're great characters, and a lot of people have changed them recently--on television Watson is an Asian woman, and my Watson is a man again" he said. "I've kept them pretty close to the way (Conan Doyle) intended them. But they're three of his best characters, and that made it easy. The characters are so strong, and so well-known, that I didn't have to change them in any way."
While creating these characters may have been easy for Falzone, it still presents a unique challenge for the actors who portray these immortal figures. Plakas, Howe and Tatum do an impressive job animating Holmes, Watson and Inspector Lestrade respectively. They each seem to have a natural feel for the characters' individual habits, mannerisms and quirks, and the rhymic banter between the trio captures their familiar relationships well.
Plakias is especially impressive as Holmes, considering he was added to the production at the last minute after another actor was forced to leave the production. While he performed some scenes holding his script, he did so with a natural feeling and confidence that made it non-obtrusive. Honestly, had it not been announced before the show, I probably wouldn't have noticed until the second act. It almost seemed as if Holmes was dividing his attention between the matter at hand and reading up on another case or something unrelated--which wouldn't be out of character for the detective.
The idea of writing an original story using pre-existing characters, especially ones as revered as Sherlock Holmes and Watson is a brave move for Falzone and Oldcastle, as it offers great potential for success by tapping into the audience's previous experience with the characters but it can also risk upsetting the series' pre-existing fanbase. This risk is especially high with Sherlock Holmes, as the 126 year-old franchise has some especially devoted and critical fans around the world. "There's a group called the Baker St. Irregulars that meet once a month, and they're all across the country - its like a Sherlock Holmes club" explains Falzone. This group had an unexpected surprise for the playwright: "A number of them have come to see (the play). I expected huge criticism from them, and it hasn't happened yet. They've said ‘Okay, its good. That's what we're looking for.'" For Falzone, Peterson and their cast, this endorsement is both encouraging and well-deserved.
With an eye on accuracy (look for the "VR" spelled out in bullet holes on the set--a detail taken straight from the books) and the non-stop feeling of suspense and excitement that we've come to expect from the Holmes tradition, "Sherlock Holmes--Knight's Gambit" offers an engaging theater experience that promises to get even better over its next two weeks at Oldcastle. Showings run Thursdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Oct. 20. Tickets are available at OldcastleTheatre.com
You can reach Jack McManus on Twitter at @Banner_Arts or at firstname.lastname@example.org.