The Mystery of the Female Heart

photo by Paul Ruffolo

by Jeff Grygny

For more than a century, Sherlock Holmes has stood as an archetype of empiricism and logic, and his domains have been the manly realms of crime, science, and danger. Canonically, the famous bachelor recognized only the brilliant, equally fictional Irene Adler as “The Woman” who could be his intellectual equal. In Sherlock Holmes and The Case Of The Jersey Lily, playwright Katie Forgette finds a historical figure who could match the great detective in calculating power and force of personality: the noted actress Lillie Langtry, who was born on the island of Jersey off the coast of France, and very much in vogue at the time that Conan Doyle was penning his stories. Equally striking in beauty and charisma, Langtry evidently impressed everyone who met her, from Mark Twain to Theodore Roosevelt, and was rumored to have had a secret affair with the Prince of Wales.

This play sparkles, with a tone approaching fan fiction—affectionate, but not too serious—that will be sheer caviar to anyone even slightly attracted to Victoriana— and it is a tour de force of the writer’s craft, weaving together strands of history and literature into a tapestry of elegance and wit. It hits so many genre targets that Holmesophiles will be repeatedly tempted to squeal in delight (one hopes they will restrain that urge, however; it is a public theater after all, and squealing is most distracting).

Director Marcella Kearns keeps the story focused and propulsive; in a nice touch, the players stay in the action even as they are getting in place during scene changes. Brandon Kirkham’s set design supports the show admirably, arranging graphic images and lovingly-burnished architectural elements to suggest opulence. Set pieces glide in and out like a giant puzzle box, mirroring the mystery’s ever-shifting possibilities. The stately Cabot Theatre only enhances the period mood.

In addition to her goal of providing pleasure—at which she succeeds in abundance— Forgette clearly wants to expand the diversity of the dramatis personae, and she can’t be faulted on her research. Instead of the stereotypical fusty lord with an urgent appeal from Buckingham Palace, Holmes receives the historical person Abdul Karim, a documented friend of Queen Victoria. Professor Moriarty’s associate, a frustrated actress, is based on an actual accomplice of an actual criminal mastermind of the period. The conceit that Holmes and Oscar Wilde were chums, even to the extent of collaborating on some of Wilde’s plays, does not always pass logical muster, but it makes for some highly entertaining moments, as when Holmes impersonates a matronly actress to read the part of Lady Bracknell in an early version of The Importance of Being Forthright.

As Wilde, Rick Pendzich can’t reach the Irishman’s 6 plus foot stature, but he rises to the occasion of delivering some of the most delicious quips ever quipped in the English tongue. Wilde seems to be in the play mostly for decoration (as befits the famed aesthete). Nor does he flaunt his notorious sexuality; apart from a mild foppishness, his only risque remark is when he compares the late-night traffic in Holmes’ flat to Waterloo Station on a Saturday night.

In the role of Lillie  Langtry, Kay Allmand gracefully captures the great beauty’s poise and intelligence: she is the heroine of her own story. Between the star power of Langtree and Wilde, Ryan Schabach’s poor Watson has little to do besides being starstruck and murmuring supportive comments. Brian  J. Gill’s Holmes is appropriately stalwart, restless, and a bit schoolmasterish, but with a great exuberance for the game. As it turns out, Langtry has not been completely forthcoming, leading to a duel of wits as challenging as the one with Professor Moriarty. As Forgette imagines Holmes, he is not a mere thinking machine; he has the emotional sensitivity to divine Langtry’s heart, which lets him solve the mystery, win the day—and alas, to manipulate her, much to his regret.

Formidably incarnated by a lean and shaven-headed Matt Daniels, Moriarty is as serpentine as Lord Voldemort, and as smooth as his enviable velvet coat. It must be said that he is rather easily defeated. A few brutish henchmen would have served him better than the pair of jittery minions he’s stuck with here. Forgette supplies dimension to most of her characters, so it’s strange that Moriarty seems so sketchy. Perhaps she’s saving that story for a sequel? The curtain call hints that it might be so.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily is classy, escapist fun; a necklace fashioned out of borrowed literary gems, and it certainly glitters. You shall be most amused.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily
by Katie Forgette

Directed by Marcella Kearns

Playing through August 26

Tickets: 414-291-7800 | milwaukeechambertheatre.com

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