Stage Preview: Irish & Classical Theatre Overcomes Obstacles to Stage ‘Crucifer of Blood’
By Christopher Rawson, Senior Theatre Critic
The exotic East, Victorian London and the world’s most famous detective: It sounds like a surefire recipe for the holidays. But it took some swerves to put it together.
Last year at this time, “The Mask of Moriarty,” Hugh Leonard’s adaptation of a tale by Arthur Conan Doyle featuring David Whalen and Martin Giles as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, made the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre coffers jingle with the best box office result in the company’s 17 years.
So understandably the erudite detective is now back on the PICT stage, this time in a Paul Giovanni adaptation of another Holmes story, “The Crucifer of Blood.” PICT hopes the result will measure up in happy theatergoers and the clink of receipts — and why not, since it offers a colorful alternative to the usual Christmas entertainments?
At a technical rehearsal last weekend, it was clear the show was well on its way toward today’s first preview and Saturday’s opening. But along the way there have been reminders that live theater is always an encounter with “insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.” That’s according to Tom Stoppard in “Shakespeare in Love,” which nonetheless concludes, “strangely enough, it all turns out well.”
For PICT, the obstacles began with a winter revolt of its board of trustees against company founder and artistic director Andrew Paul, who had already planned the whole season, including “Mask of Moriarty.” So the new artistic director, Alan Stanford, had to find a stage director to replace Mr. Paul. He selected Matt Torney, a Belfast native who has directed in Dublin and is now mainly a resident in New York, hiring him after a long nighttime conversation indicated, as Mr. Torney says, “We have a lot in common: He and I had an artistic connection.”
That was in time for Mr. Torney, returning to Pittsburgh after an August directing gig in Belfast, to take over casting in September auditions. He inherited David Whalen as Holmes and Martin Giles as Watson. But then Mr. Giles had to be replaced for illness (he’s now on the mend).
So at pretty much the last minute, Mr. Torney “had an epiphany” and remembered Justin R.G. Holcomb, with whom he’d worked in New York, “a perfect Watson.” Presto, cast complete — nine actors playing a baker’s dozen roles.
Director Torney brings to his task degrees from Trinity College, Dublin, and Columbia University, New York, plus directing experience on both sides of the Atlantic. Since 2009 he’s been an associate director of Dublin’s Rough Magic Theatre, and his directing on this side features Irish plays at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. He’s further domesticated here by marriage to “a beautiful American dancer.”
Mainly, he says, he’s in Pittsburgh because he has a zest for this project. Adapted from Doyle’s second Holmes novel, “The Sign of the Four” (1890), “Crucifer of Blood” had a successful Broadway run in 1978, starring Paxton Whitehead and Glenn Close, then a longer run in London starring Keith Michell and Susan Hampshire; in a 1981 Los Angeles production, Charlton Heston was supported by Jeremy Brett (a future Holmes) as Watson.
Holmes is “not just the first great detective but one of the first forensic scientists,” Mr. Torney says. “He takes on the darkness with clear-sightedness and the power of reason.” But “Crucifer of Blood” also has “a strong dash of the macabre,” including a curse written in blood.
Mr. Torney finds the Charity Randall Theatre a fascinating place to work, appropriate to a story created at the height of England’s industrial (and colonial) empire, performed now in a quasi-Victorian style in the city that was once at the heart of American industrial might. But he insists that “what I love most about theater is actors being creative … instinct is the most powerful tool an artist has.”
In full accord, Mr. Holcomb finds the challenge of playing Dr. Watson is “navigating the stereotype,” fighting the dominant image of Watson. “Theater should be live and present,” he says.
Mr. Holcomb first met Mr. Torney several years ago, doing a quick reading for a Columbia student playwright. Still, the call in October about this role came out of the blue. But it was easy to say “yes.” “In the last few years, since Holmes has been back in vogue, I’ve wanted to do Watson,” Mr. Holcomb says. “I like taking on familiar characters and finding new aspects, bringing to it what only you can.”
Part of that is removing accretions, such as the buffoonery of Nigel Bruce in the Rathbone films. In this play Watson does “do some goofy things, a couple of gags for laughs, but I try to justify these in a dignified manner.” After all, in the books Watson is a smart man, a doctor and ex-rugby player, “so the bumbler doesn’t fit.”
In pursuit of the non-bumbler, Mr. Holcomb watched a lot of Holmes movies. His two favorite Watsons are Robert Duvall in “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” and Ben Kingsley in “Without a Clue,” where Watson is the real detective and invents Holmes as a straight man.
Joining the director and second lead in their Holmes debuts is the scenic designer, Johnmichael Bohach, a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh and previously PICT prop master. The Sherlock Holmes stories may be old, but they must be constantly refreshed by new artists.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.