Purple Rose Theatre delivers a hilarious send-up of Sherlock Holmes


Purple Rose Theatre's Sherlock Holmes cast

Alternate Fictional Realities: Paul Stroili (Watson), Tom Whalen (Vincent van Gogh), Sarab Kamoo (Irene), and Mark Colson (Sherlock Holmes) mix it up in Purple Rose's Sherlock send-up. Photo by Sean Carter Photography

Arthur Conan Doyle purists may be shocked. But imagine an alternative universe in which Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes and “the woman” Irene Adler are lovers and live together at 221B Baker Street with Holmes’ trusted companion and chronicler Dr. John Watson.

That’s the set up for Detroit playwright David MacGregor’s hilarious Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Elusive Ear at the Purple Rose Theatre.

The oft-parodied Holmes and Watson are given the royal treatment in MacGregor’s play as he dips into pop culture circa 1888 for a comic adventure that offers up a softer, more romantic Sherlock. The famous Holmes’ accoutrements are all here -- the deerstalker cap, the meerschaum pipe, the violin, the stash of cocaine. But things are definitely different on Baker Street.

Holmes and Adler are passionate for each other but also fiercely competitive as they compete to one-up each other in deductive reasoning and crime solving. Watson is still a worrywart, but he’s also the one keeping the Holmes and Adler detective agency afloat by selling his stories to The Strand. But funds are running a bit low as the lovebirds haven’t had an interesting case since they began housekeeping with each other. (And where is Mrs. Hudson?).

Prospects promise to improve when a sharp-faced, struggling artist with a bleeding ear shows up for a consultation. Yes, it is Vincent van Gogh and has he got a tale to tell.

Director Guy Sanville has assembled an excellent cast who manage to keep true to the spirit of the original while relishing the comedy of MacGregor’s alternate reality. Sanville keeps the comic jousting among Holmes, Adler and Watson moving along, but deftly plays with our expectations as he presents a slothful, love-struck Holmes against a robust, levelheaded Watson. He has also orchestrated some derring-do that is both high adventure and wild slapstick.

Mark Colson has the classic, lean, nose forward Holmes profile and delivers the often-arch withering deductions with just the right combination of snap and lethargic boredom. His Holmes is also a Lothario who has won his ladylove and finds less challenge in detective work. Colson slouches about in his silk pajamas with abandon.

It is the usually bumbling Watson who energetically tries to prod Holmes to action. Paul Stroili is an excellent Watson. While this Watson still lacks the quick wits of Holmes and Adler, he makes up for it with a firm sense of practicality. Stroili gives Watson a strong voice but retains a bit of the dithering comic foil. His musings and innate conservatism are played with a nice balance of serious and comic.

In the Holmes canon, Irene Adler appears in only one story. She outsmarts Holmes and wins a place in his heart and mind as “the woman.” She is very much “the woman” in MacGregor’s play, but her appeal is more than intellectual. Sarab Kamoo is charming and passionate as Irene and expertly parries with Holmes. Kamoo’s eyes are ever alert and her reactions are priceless. And her passionate embrace brings out a new Sherlock.

The trio is engaged by a desperate van Gogh.  He wants Holmes to retrieve his ear from Paul Gauguin so he can woo his true love. Tom Whalen, with red hair and scruffy clothes, makes a fine van Gogh, though a few “jas” do not make for a Dutch accent. But his comic whines and agonized artist swoons are very funny.

Soon after van Gogh arrives, another client shows up. An attractive, young French woman, Marie Chartier, tells a mournful story, but her real aim is to kill Holmes. She is secretly (spoiler alert) the daughter of Dr. Moriarity, the master criminal dispatched over a waterfall by Holmes. But her real complaint is that she is a feminist who hasn’t been given a fair shake to prove herself as a crime boss. Caitlin Cavannaugh is bold, funny and quite dashing as Marie. Her French accent is passable. She and Colson engage in a sword fight that is alternately exciting and funny.

Though the banter between Holmes and Adler never flags, MacGregor still throws in the best witty support available in 1888 London when none other than Oscar Wilde shows up. The master of the bon mot throws out his famous quips as easily as he tosses about his long locks. He also provides some art expertise. Rusty Mewha seems to be having a high old time conjuring up the cynical but amusing Wilde. He snaps off the quips and poses expertly.

The setting for these events is Holmes’ quarters on Baker Street. Set designer Bartley H. Bauer has designed a jaw-dropping environment. It is an eye-candy, tone-perfect realization of that famous place. Every last detail is in place from the domed sunroom, to the cabinet of chemicals, to the flowered wallpaper and marble floors. It is so cozy, you might just want to move in and curl up with a book from the well-stocked bookcase. In a time when minimalism is the rage in stage design, Bauer shows that lush realism has its place, too.

Well-known classical music pieces and two original compositions by Brad Philips set the mood nicely.

The only things missing from this excellent Sherlock Holmes are the fog and Mrs. Hudson.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

“Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Elusive Ear” continues at the Purple Rose Theatre, 137 Park Street, Chelsea, 8 pm Wednesdays through Saturdays and 3 pm Saturdays and Sundays through May 26. For tickets, call 734-433-7673 or go to purplerosetheatre.org.