‘Sherlock Holmes’ ushers in Ethington series
Story by Janie Magruder
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
What’s not to like about “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure,” which this weekend kicks off the 2014-15 Ethington Theatre Series at Grand Canyon University? The supercilious British accents, the tortuous twists and turns, and the camaraderie between the smarter-than-thou Sherlock Holmes and his sounding board Dr. Watson make playwright Steven Dietz’s play a jolly good time.
But a closer examination through the looking glass reveals a hidden gem in Dietz’s Edgar Award-winning adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original story. For a mystery, its lead character has more in common with Batman than you might think.
“Sherlock Holmes is a crime fighter, not in the muscle-bound, superhero way, but with his intellect. He can’t fly through the air, but he can solve any problem with his brain,” said director Claude Pensis, dean of GCU’s College of Fine Arts and Production. “He pits himself against someone who is very facile in terms of his intellect, and you have the light and the dark when you compare Holmes to (the evil) Professor James Moriarty. Sherlock’s raison d’etre is to solve crimes for the betterment of the world.”
“Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure,” which Pensis describes as a “fast romp through deductive reasoning,” is a clever choice for Ethington and its audience. (And a popular one, apparently: The first two productions, on Friday and Saturday, are sold out, and only a smattering of tickets remain for the other four performances on Sunday and next weekend.) It follows on the heels of the BBC’s prodigiously popular “Sherlock” and the blockbuster films (2009, 2011 and a third in production) with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.
Junior Ryan Usher, one of two theatre students cast as Holmes, grew up reading Doyle’s books but has been less enamored with Guy Ritchie’s films. They display “too much action and too little of Sherlock’s genius,” he said.
Usher relishes playing Holmes, who in Dietz’s story hasn’t pursued a case in years and is bored to tears, as someone who is having the time of his life with this new caper, strutting his stuff and saying whatever comes to mind. And oh, that mind.
“Sherlock is really unpredictable, and he’s always thinking a thousand steps in advance,” he said. “It’s more like he’s playing with action figures.”
Pensis’ choice for the other Holmes, junior Aaron Potter, has prepared for his performance by studying how Basil Rathbone interpreted the role in his films of the late 1930s and 1940s.
Pensis wants Holmes to be big, and Potter said he plans to deliver a Sherlock that is “extravagant and larger than life. In the movies, the camera zooms in on Robert Downey Jr.’s eyes so you can see him thinking, but as an actor on stage, it’s up to you to make his epiphanies larger in other ways.”
Being double cast as Watson gave sophomore Dylan Kim a reason to dive into Doyle’s tomes and senior William Wyss permission to do so.
“I was reluctant to watch or read anything Sherlock Holmes until I got the part,” Wyss said. “I don’t know if I could be over-influenced, but I want to give as organic a performance as possible.”
Cast members are learning for the first time a British dialect under the coaching of GCU theatre instructor Michael Kary. Before a recent rehearsal, they stood in a circle on stage and appeared to be enjoying practicing their accents and speaking gibberish to get their lips and voices warmed up.
“It’s like a whole new language for all of us,” Wyss said.
To enable more students to hone their acting skills and be involved in the production, Pensis double-cast seven of the 11 characters/ensembles. Kim said sharing a role can be intimidating and cause competition, but he and Wyss are interpreting Watson so differently that the inevitable comparisons may not be forthcoming.
“We work very well together on stage, we act well off each other, and it just feels right,” Kim said. “We’re reading lines, figuring out the character and discovering things together.”
For Usher and Potter, who are close friends and roommates, this is the second time they have been paired in a role (Richard Miller in “Ah, Wilderness,” October 2013).
“We play off each other’s ideas and love being able to collaborate,” Potter said. “You’re more or less a sounding board when you’re double cast. You can read a scene and have five really good ideas, and they have totally different ideas, and then you get to say, ‘I’m totally going to steal that.’”
One thing’s for sure: They won’t be sharing Holmes costumes: Potter is 5 feet 10 inches, while Usher is 6-foot-7.
Performances of “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure,” on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 29-30, and Friday, Sept. 5, are sold out. A limited number of tickets are available for shows at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 31, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 6, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 7. Tickets, $5-12, and more information are available here or by calling 602-639-8880.
Rounding out the rest of the Ethington Theatre 2014-15 season are a two-act opera, an adapted short story about Christmas, a well-known Shakespearean tragedy and a rousing Midwestern musical. The lineup:
● “Little Women: An Opera in Two Acts,” story by Louisa May Alcott, music by Mark Adamo, Oct. 10-12 and 17-19
● “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” story by poet Dylan Thomas, Nov. 14-16 and 21-23
● “Romeo and Juliet,” play by William Shakespeare, Feb. 6-8 and 13-15
● “Oklahoma!,” the first musical written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, March 20-22 and 27-29