Review: Fine acting and direction result in humorous ‘Crucifer of Blood’ – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Whalen as Sherlock, Gayle Pazerski as Irene St. Claire. Photo by Larry Roberts, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Whalen as Sherlock, Gayle Pazerski as Irene St. Claire. Photo by Larry Roberts, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Bob Hoover

Despite A. Conan Doyle’s clever effort to rid himself and the world of Sherlock Holmes, this fictional creature has seldom been more alive than he is today. There are two versions of him on TV, a recent film series and several older programs available for rerunning, not to mention the occasional revival of a Basil Rathbone Holmes film from the 1930s.

It was a heavy burden for some actors. The classically trained Rathbone despised the typecasting prison he was stuck in while another, Jeremy Brett, apparently went around the bend after playing Holmes as a man possessed of twitches and quirks.

David Whalen seems untroubled by the effects of playing the sleuth for the second time. The Pittsburgh-based actor’s portrayal is straightforward, noble and heroic without idiosyncrasies or touches of madness that made the literary Holmes a fascinating character. As the title character in “Sherlock Holmes & the Crucifer of Blood,” he adds a dash of action hero to the role, but leaves the twitches and quirks alone.

“Crucifer” by Paul Giovanni is the holiday show of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, which cast Mr. Whalen as the detective in the 2011 production, “Mask of Moriarty.” This time, Holmes and loyal sidekick Dr. John Watson wrestle with supernatural demons from Britain’s takeover of India in the 1850s that seem to be alive in 1886 London. The 1978 play was a mashup of Doyle’s novel “The Sign of the Four” and a couple of his short stories.

First-time PICT director Matt Torney stages “Crucifer” as a campy 19th-century melodrama, which it is, with a damsel in distress and a bunch of unpleasant characters including a “pygmy islander.” With a cast of nine playing multiple roles, he juggles the action of this unwieldy script smoothly and with dashes of physical humor that add up to two acts of good-natured entertainment.

The darker side of Doyle’s description of Britain’s brutal colonialism, support of the lucrative Asian drug trade and Holmes’ own cocaine addiction is lightly touched upon in the play. A few disturbing moments pop up from time to time in the effective performances of Ken Bolden as the crippled army major and Gayle Pazerski as Irene St. Clair, the hysterical damsel with a yen for Watson.

Justin R. G. Holcomb plays Holmes’ unhelpful partner with more sincerity than comedy, but Daryll Heysham provides the laughs as the clueless Inspector Lestrade. In a peg leg and eye patch, Malcolm Madera is a scary survivor of a notorious penal colony while gangly Jonathan Visser finds a way to make opium addiction funny.

This period piece is vividly heightened by a flexible set design by Johnmichael Bohach, the eerie lighting of Cindy Limauro and effective sound from Joe Pino that all adds up to a handsome production. There could be less fog and smoke, though. The Randall Theatre looked like Shanghai on opening night, bathed continually in a chemical haze.

It was all for the sake of chuckles and giggles, though, a lighthearted satire to put audiences in a holiday mood.

Retired Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover reviews theater for the newspaper.

‘Sherlock Holmes & the Crucifer of Blood’
Where: Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, the Charity Randall Theater at Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland.
When: Through Dec. 20. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 10 a.m. today; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17, ; 2 p.m. Dec. 15; and 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 21.
Tickets: $25-$48. or 412-561-6000.