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Don’t be embarassed, it happens to everyone: NYSTI’s Sherlock’s Legacy.

Old Folks’ Holmes
By James Yeara

Sherlock’s Legacy

By Ed. Lange, directed by Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder

New York State Theatre Institute, through May 7

One of my prized possessions is The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, a two-volume collection of every word Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about the greatest detective the world has ever known, a folio-sized text complete with maps, illustrations, diagrams, photographs, and footnotes longer than the tales themselves.

These footnotes are a joy: There’s something deeply comforting in treating Sherlock Holmes as a real person subject to the same laws of nature that govern real people; and the imaginative musings on subjects sometimes so trivial as when the adventures actually took place, using clues in the text, train schedules, and 19th-century London weather reports to correlate exact dates for “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” or “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” are acts of such close reading, observation, and analysis as to be worthy of Holmes himself.

The New York State Theatre Institute has had a string of past successes in excogitating Sherlock Holmes, from 1987’s Crucifer of Blood to 1997’s acclaimed Sherlock’s Secret Life by Ed. Lange. NYSTI has always had the resources to handle large-cast productions, and its previous Sherlock Holmes shows were full of proper stuff: Holmes at his most erudite, energetic, and eccentric surrounded by wily, memorable characters, twisted plots, and sublime syllogisms.

Unfortunately, the premiere production of Sherlock’s Legacy, also written by Lange and directed by Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder, muses on a long-retired Holmes (Robin Chadwick), who faces his gravest opponent in what should be called “The Adventure of the Lowering Sperm Count” or “The Man With Early-Stage Alzheimer’s.”

Holmes in retirement tending bees is proper stuff; but Holmes the obtuse dolt losing at chess to Dr. Watson (Joel Aroeste) and continually wrong about his deductions and failing to observe clues? Holmes bemoaning his outcast state and lack of offspring? This Holmes is not in need of a 7-percent solution, but of the little blue pill.

The chief failings are a Holmes stripped of what made him Holmes: his fabulous intellect, keen curiosity and desire to set things right—especially against opponents with all their faculties and resources marshaled against him. Instead, Sherlock’s Legacy presents a Holmes who simply doesn’t know, doesn’t see and, hence, is wrong repeatedly. To add insult to injury, all the supporting characters fill the air with allusions and analogies to compensate for the fact that Holmes’ “Birnam Wood” no longer rises up to his Dunsinane. Unfortunately, for all that effort, the small cast doesn’t supply enough eccentricity to cover up for the bare-bones plot or lack of a worthy protagonist.

Sherlock’s Legacy looks good, with NYSTI’s typically rich stagecraft; Robert Anton’s costumes give the characters more bustle than their lines do. Will Severin’s original music does its best to make a melodrama out of Sherlock’s Legacy, and John McLain’s lighting design—full of lightning flashes—aids in this. And the fault lies not in its stars, for Sherlock’s Legacy is centered by Robin Chadwick’s very raffish Holmes, who looks like Nicol Williamson and often strikes poses inspired by the Strand Mystery Magazine’s original drawings for the Sherlock stories.

The problem is that nothing much is at stake, no one seems to care much about it, and the whole matters less than the sum of its parts. It’s all very ho-hum—except for when Watson asks, “Holmes, do I detect a pistol in your pocket?” If Sherlock’s Legacy had started there and presented a Holmes more vigorous in his Depends years, this production might have added to the worthy legacy of NYSTI’s fine work depicting one of the greatest characters in literature.

Local Talent

Torch Song Trilogy

By Harvey Fierstein, directed by Jason C. Polunci

The Collaborative Artists in association with the Objective, Olympia Hall, through April 30

If they gave out little gold statuettes to great actors in this neck of the woods, JJ Buechner could start making room on his mantelpiece right now. His star turn as Arnold Beckoff, the drag queen searching for true love, is the most powerful performance I’ve seen in ages. But the fact that a play like Torch Song Trilogy could see the light of day this far outside New York City (in Schuylerville, no less) is itself amazing, for attitudes toward gays today are no better than they were at the time Fierstein was writing, at the start of the gay-rights movement.

According to director Jason C. Polunci, threats were made to the show, a fund-raiser for the Matthew Shepard Foundation in memory of the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student killed because of his sexuality, forcing Polunci to warn audience members not to enter and leave the building alone. While nothing worse than a few snide comments to the actors at the local Stewart’s actually took place, the threats made it clear that not much has changed in 30 years. And sadly, gay marriage and gays adopting children—the themes Fierstein deals with—are still being argued over, just as Arnold and his mother argue over them in the third of the linked plays, Widows and Children First!

Of the three short plays (or long acts, depending on how you look at them), the first, The International Stud, is by far the best. We’re introduced to Arnold, a wry observer of life with the diction of a Dead End Kid, in a long monologue as he sits at his dressing room mirror, primping for a show. Buechner’s Arnold is very much in the style of Fierstein, down to the gravely baritone. We do not see Arnold “on stage,” however; instead, Lady Blues, a female female impersonator (the fabulous Mindy Morse), lip synchs Arnold’s favorite vintage tearjerkers throughout. The flamboyant entertainer is improbably drawn to an uptight teacher named Ed (Jonathan Whitton), whom he meets in the front room of a backroom bar. Even in this pre-AIDS world, Arnold shies away from the groping in the dark; he is too much of a traditionalist and a romantic to enjoy sex without love.

As Ed, Whitton’s discomfort with his own homosexuality is excruciating to watch. Unlike Arnold, Ed is way in the closet, at least when his snowbird parents come back north for the summer—so much so that he ends up marrying Laurel (Kelli Deveney-Chandler), a woman who seems to be drawn to bisexual men. Act II, Fugue in a Nursery, finds Laurel inviting Arnold and his new lover, Alan (Brian Van Wie), for a weekend at Ed’s parents’ country place. Much bed- hopping ensues, but the effect is much more cool and intellectual than the electrifying first act.

Things heat up again when Ma (Michelle Summerlin-Yergan) comes for a visit to Arnold’s household. Alan has died, but David (Zach Slack) has moved in. Arnold has chickened out of telling his mother that he plans to adopt the gay high-school freshman, leaving her to piece out the situation—and her son’s whole life—on her own. Summerlin- Yergan is marvelous as usual, though her Brooklyn accent doesn’t quite match Buechner’s for authenticity. Slack, a junior at Glens Falls High School, is outstanding. I had to double-check that he really is as young as the role he plays.

Polunci has done a lot with virtually nothing in terms of set and stage. But the lack of frills just points out how much acting ability he has to work with in his first-rate cast. Given its subject matter, and its four-hour length, you probably won’t find another production of this play in our area anytime soon. That makes this production of Torch Song Trilogy a real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Don’t miss it.

—Kathy Ceceri

A Child Should Lead Them

To Kill a Mockingbird

By Harper Lee, adapted by Christopher Sergel, directed by Terry Rabine

Home Made Theater, through May 8

For me, To Kill A Mockingbird has always been a children’s story. Although it deals with very adult themes of race, poverty, and honor, both Harper Lee’s original 1960 novel (her only book) and the film starring Gregory Peck are told from the point of view of Scout, the young daughter of the heroic country lawyer Atticus Finch. All of the action—the rape trial of the black farmworker Tom Robinson, the lynch mob that confronts Atticus at the county jail, the attack after the school play—is seen through Scout’s precocious eyes, and is interspersed with the usual concerns of childhood, such as nosy old ladies and mysterious treasures found in the knot of a tree.

So while Atticus, here played with authority and warmth by Stephen Davis, is central to Lee’s story, its real heart depends on the character of overall-wearing, gum-chewing Jean Louise Finch. Kayla Murphy plays Scout with all the self-assurance and candor the part demands. Ben Smith, as Scout’s older brother Jem, is another forceful presence, facing questions of identity and responsibility that Scout has yet to encounter. But with so many colorful characters and telling incidents to include, Sergel’s adaptation does not put the same emphasis on the children that the book and film versions do, I think to the play’s detriment.

Director Terry Rabine has a huge cast and a lot of action to fit into one stage, and he manages to keep the story moving. Both actors and design help convey the time and place of the story: the Deep South during the Depression, when it wasn’t just the heat that was oppressive. Standout performances from supporting players including Audrey Looye as the Finches’ friend Miss Maudie, Zipporah Galimore as their maid Calpurnia, Andrew Machenry as Bob Ewell, and David Huff as Walter Cunningham add to the flavor of the piece, while Kierre Daniels as Tom Robinson and Shira Hofmekler as Mayella Ewell shine in the tense courtroom scene. The cast also did a good job of presenting consistent Southern accents, although I wished for more clarity in some of the actors’ lines.

Where the play, at nearly three hours with intermission, doesn’t live up to the book or the movie is in rounding out characters more important to the children’s story than that of the grownups: Dill (George Kaplan), a pampered city boy sent to live with his aunt, based on Lee’s childhood friend, the imaginative Truman Capote; Mrs. Dubose (Laural Hayes), the nasty widow down the street; and most of all the reclusive Boo Radley (Kirk Starczewski). For the children in the movie version, Boo’s story is almost as tragic as Tom Robinson’s. But in the play, he is relegated to a footnote.

While Rabine has pulled off a real feat in bringing this epic to Home Made Theater, the strength of this production is Davis’ understated performance as Atticus. Beloved by the town and his children, Atticus is almost a godlike figure to Lee. Davis confidently brings out his character’s inner goodness while showing us his humanity as well. Read the book, watch the movie, but for another take on this American classic, try the stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird.

—Kathy Ceceri

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