WORLD PREMIERE! After a string of brutal murders, Watson and Holmes travel to New York on the trail of the killer. The mysterious Harry Houdini seems to know more than he's telling, but is he friend or foe? Nothing is as it seems in this sequel to our hit show Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes, as our heroes encounter murder, mystery, magic... and a heartbreak that is almost too much to bear. Adapted from the Serial Killers serial.
PICK OF THE WEEK... "...inventive staging and bizarre humor... ambitious and demanding... neatly incorporates cinematic conventions... cleverly staged..." -L.A. Weekly
"...this is the best piece of theatre I have seen all year... clever and witty... This production is like a magic trick that will keep you enthralled... Sacred Fools hits this one out of the ball park...." -Culver City News
"I don't think I've ever seen local theater so cleverly staged... funny. Very funny... several show stoppers." -Wild About Harry
"...hilarious, fiendishly clever... Performances are once again all-around excellent... must-see... thrilling... proves a crowd-pleaser..." -StageScene L.A.Read the full reviews!
Photos by Jessica Sherman Photography
Scott Leggett as Dr. John Watson
Joe Fria as Sherlock Holmes
Carrie Keranen as Violet Hunter
Eric Curtis Johnson as Mycroft Holmes
Cj Merriman as Mary Morstan Watson
Graham Skipper as Sigmund Freud / Pike
Lisa Anne Nicolai
and Donal Thoms-Cappello as Harry Houdini
Bruno Oliver as Dr. John Watson
Bryan Bellomo as Sherlock Holmes
Lordan Napoli as Violet Hunter
Troy Vincent as Mycroft Holmes
Anna Hanson as Mary Morstan Watson
Korey Simeone as Sigmund Freud / Pike
Curt Bonnem as Harry Houdini
Andrea Nelson and Colin Willkie as Stagehand Swings
Producers - Brian Wallis, Brandon Clark, Laura Napoli and Abraham Benrubi
Assistant Director - Monica Greene
Stage Manager - Suze Campagna
Assistant Stage Manager - Dana DeRuyck
Composer - Ryan Johnson
Production Designer - Michael James Schneider
Lighting Designer - Matt Richter
Costume Designer - Linda Muggeridge
Costuming Assistant - Aviva Pressman
Stunt/Fight Choreographer - Andrew Amani
Movement Consultant - Natasha Norman
Suzuki Trainer - Joe Fria
Dialect Coach - Guy Picot
Stage Crew - Alyson Schultz
Costume Crew - Trey Perkins
Graphic Designer - Curt Bonnem
Sequels are tough. Expectations are generally high and you can never attain the novelty factor of the first outing. Writer-director Jaime Robledo's Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini, the second installment in his Watson series, is less dazzling (far fewer action set-pieces) and more talky than the first but maintains his inventive staging and bizarre humor, sending his beloved characters on an ultimately darker, more spiritual journey. Estranged for the past 10 years, sleuthing duo Dr. Watson (Scott Leggett) and Sherlock Holmes (Joe Fria) reunite to solve a string of grisly murders marked by signs of the occult. Their hunt takes them to New York City, where they encounter a legendary escape artist, the mysterious Harry Houdini (a charismatic Donal Thoms-Cappello), who seems to know more than he's letting on. Meanwhile, Watson is spooked by visions of his departed wife, Mary (CJ Merriman). With its fractured timeline, Robledo's plotting is more ambitious and demanding than the first installment, 2010's Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes, yet offers deeper rewards. He neatly incorporates cinematic conventions, such as showing a murder re-enact itself in slow-motion rewind. Nods to Hitchcock (a runaway carousel, cleverly staged) and Bruce Lee (the hall-of-mirrors sequence) delight, as do numerous pop-culture references. Carrie Keranen is a welcome addition as Violet Hunter (a minor character from Doyle's novels and Watson's love interest) and her gowns (period costuming is by Linda Muggeridge) are especially gorgeous.
© 2013 L.A. Weekly
Magic ensues onstage
Do not read this review. I’m serious. Stop reading. Sacred Fools production of Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini is one of those productions that is littered throughout with little surprises and hidden gems that render it impossible to talk about without revealing something to the reader.
Trust me when I say that you want to discover all of those things for yourself. All you need to know going in, is that this is the best piece of theatre I have seen all year. So dear reader, stop reading this and go see the play.
You can thank me later. You’re still reading aren’t you? I bet you were one of those kids that opened all of their Christmas presents beforehand. Fine then, read on, but you can’t say that I didn’t warn you.
Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini finds Sherlock and Watson traveling across the pond to New York following a trail of grisly murders. Their investigation leads them to Harry Houdini and the dark arts he is renowned for practicing.
However, it is unclear just how entangled Houdini is in this sinister web. Unlike your typical Sherlock Holmes story, this is Watson’s story and Jamie Robledo, who wrote and directed, does a masterful job with the script.
The dialogue is clever and witty, and incorporates touches of our modern vocabulary to great effect. As this is Watson’s story, the characters around him seem to represent what he loves about them the most.
They each live in their own world, yet those worlds blend together seamlessly with Watson at their center. The story is tight and engaging. In the second act things slowly start to unravel, but just when they are about to lose you for good it is revealed that there is a method to the madness, and it all becomes clear.
This production is like a magic trick that will keep you enthralled, but instead of being disappointed when the secret is discovered at the end, you love it even more because the only deception employed is your own willingness to overlook the obvious.
This script creates some big shoes to fill, and Robledo’s casts completes the job admirably. Scott Leggett as Watson is genuine and heartfelt in his quest for the truth and provides the stable pillar for the rest of the cast to buoy themselves to.
Joe Fria portrays a bit of a bumbling, childish, egotistical Sherlock and he is hysterical especially when bickering with Mycroft, the understudy Troy Vincent appeared the night of the review. Donal Thoms-Cappello is the perfect adversary for Sherlock as the cock-sure and mysterious Houdini.
However, it is Graham Skipper’s ridiculous and fantastic Sigmund Freud that steals the show. The men are rounded out with CJ Merriman as the haunting Mary Watson and Carrie Keranen as the spot on Violet Hunter.
Robledo also employs a crew of five Stagehands to assist with the scenery and to fill in all of the sundry roles to round out the story.
A huge thank you to production designer Michael James Schneider and the design staff for proving that a 99 seat house is not only worthy, but capable of producing a well thought out and executed design.
Robledo’s sound design coupled with Ryan Johnson’s original compositions are fantastic providing a range from subtle ambiance to a character unto itself. Matt Richter paints the set with a gorgeous lighting design that serves to create mood, depth and guide the eye of the viewer to what is most important.
The sets comprised of a platform with four sets of stairs and lattice work to decorate the legs (narrow curtains hung at the side of the stage to mask entrances and exits) was utilitarian in its simplicity, but with the help of the Stagehands and movable pieces, lived and breathed as the play progressed forward creating stunning, flowing visuals that set the stage perfectly for Linda Muggeridge’s beautiful period costume work.
My only complaint, and I do have one, is to do with the fight between Watson and Holmes, and the carnival roustabouts. I have yet to see a truly exceptional piece of stage combat in Los Angeles, so my expectations are not high.
However, Andrew Amani’s choreography for this fight was beautiful and had all of the potential to finally set the bar for a good fight in Los Angeles. Unfortunately the execution of the choreography left a lot to be desired.
It was too fast to pass for a stylized slow-mo fight, and too slow to pass for a realistic full-speed fight. The good news is that everybody was safe. The bad news is that it was obvious to everyone watching that everybody was perfectly safe.
Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini is not a play that will cause an existential dilemma or heated debates on the drive home. However, in the realm of an interesting story told extremely well for the sheer entertainment value of telling it, Sacred Fools hits this one out of the ball park.
© 2013 Culver City News
Discovering the Dark Art of Houdini (and Jaime Robledo) in Hollywood
On Sunday I had the great pleasure of seeing Watson and The Dark Art of Harry Houdini at the Sacred Fools Theater in Hollywood. Of course, I went to see Houdini and all else is secondary in my sick mind. But when I left, all I could think about was just how excellent the entire production was. I don't think I've ever seen local theater so cleverly staged as this play by the talented writer-director Jaime Robledo. But let's take this one step at a time.
I was happy to have wrangled a few magical associates to accompany me to the Sunday matinee. My crew consisted of Joseph Fox (handcuff expert), Joe Notaro (webmaster of HHCE), and Mark Willoughby (producer of The Ghastly Love of Johnny X). The experienced started with the temperature that day soaring near 100 degrees. But that somehow made it a true L.A. theater going experience, which can sometimes require heroic effort.
The Sacred Fools is a wonderful, intimate theater space located off Melrose Ave in what is known as East Hollywood. You're not stepping into the Pantages, that's for sure, but that's part of the appeal. There is a tangible passion and love of theater in every bit of this cleverly laid out small space. You are warmly welcomed and made to feel like you are part of the theater family. I was also happy to see the lobby decked out in Houdini posters. Even the bathroom was peppered with Houdiniana [click for pics]. So, yeah, they pretty much had me from the start.
Watson and The Dark Art of Harry Houdini is first and foremost a Sherlock Holmes play. Well, to be more precise, it's a Sherlock Holmes play in which Dr. Watson (superbly played by Scott Leggett) is the main character. This is actually a sequel to Jaime Robledo's 2010 production, Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes. It helps to have some knowledge of that first show (I didn't), but this sequel is well written enough to catch you up quickly and root you in this unique Holmesian timeline (10 years after Holmes and Watson's last adventure).
The first of many pleasant surprises was that the show was funny. Very funny. I might even classify it as a comedy, although it journeys into serious drama as well. Joe Fria plays Holmes very broadly and largely for laughs. I'm a bit of a Holmes purist, so I didn't love that, but it works here to shift the focus onto Watson, who has to tolerate his wildly moody and, yes, even buffoonish companion. However, Holmes' introduction and first deduction of a murder scene is extremely well done and shows us a Sherlock at his full power. It's the first of several show stoppers.
The play also features Graham Skipper in a duel role as a somewhat sex-crazed Sigmund Freud and a Sherlock Holmes wannabe named Pike. Skipper is very funny and comes close to stealing the show whenever he's onstage. Other cast members include the attractive Carrie Keranen as Violent Hunter, Eric Curtis Johnson as Mycroft Holmes, and Cj Merriman as the spirit of Watson's first wife, Mary Morstan.
But what of Houdini? Well, Harry Houdini is played here by Donal Thoms-Cappello and he knocks it out of the park! It helps that the actor is clearly a major star in waiting. He has the presence and charisma of a leading man, which makes his Houdini jump off the stage just as he did in life. When you have Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and Harry Houdini all sharing the same space, it could be hard to decide who is the most famous and iconic of the men. In this play it's clearly Houdini, and that is in no small part due to Donal's presence and performance. My companions all commented on how he reminded them of Johnathon Schaech in Houdini (1998). I could also see that. But I think Donal is better.
One thing that instantly jumped out at me was that Donal gives Houdini a somewhat heavy New York/Brooklyn accent. While Houdini didn't have this accent (Hardeen did), I think this works quite well. Talking to the actor after the play, he explained that he wanted to infuse his Houdini with a sense that underneath the wealth and fame is still a very tough, street smart character. The accent does this beautifully, and also works as a nice "new world" contrast to all the English accents in the play. By the way, Donal did Houdini's real voice for me after the show -- reciting; "the Water Torture Cell" -- which was great fun. (I also noticed he was holding a copy of Carter Beats The Devil.)
The actor also earns his magic stripes by performing a suspended straitjacket escape wrapped in chains during the show. This escape opens the second act and it's quite a harrowing thing to experience in such a small theater space. I hadn't expected to see any Houdini feats recreated, so this was a pleasant surprise.
Another pleasant surprise was that Bess is also in this play, although only briefly during two seance scenes. Here she's played by Lisa Anne Nicolai, who happens to be a good physical match for Bess. (When she first came out on stage as part of the stage crew, Joe Fox immediately identified her as a perfect Bess and was happy when she later appeared in the part.) I was able to chat with Lisa after the play and she explained that in doing research she was surprised to see that Bess wore her hair short, like her own, which she noted was quite progressive for the time. (I've often thought the same thing.) She seemed to have great affection for Bess and enjoyed playing the part, even though the majority of her stage time was spent as part of a troop of black clad pantomime artists who assist in the complex and creative staging of the play.
Lets now talk about that staging. For me and my companions this was the highlight of the show. The Sacred Fools has a small stage with just one set. But somehow on that stage we get to see an ocean liner sailing away from a dock, a shuffle board game between Houdini and Holmes (probably my favorite piece of staging), the bustling Coney Island midway, a carousel spinning wildly out of control, and a roller coaster! All are convincingly portrayed with a mix of pantomime and clever stagecraft. Really great stuff.
The plot of the play finds an estranged Holmes and Watson reunited by Mycroft to investigate a series of grisly murders. Houdini, who is name-checked as Ehrich Weiss early on, is a chief suspect. There are also nods to Houdini's Scotland Yard handcuff escape and the Mirror Challenge (Watson was in the audience). The action moves from London to Coney Island's Dreamland Park. Part of the play explores Watson's struggle to deal with the death of his wife, Mary. The play actually has a shocking surprise ending, but I won't spoil it.
As I said, I was able to chat with the actors as well as Jaime Robledo after the show. I was happy to learn that the director is planning a group trip to the Magic Castle very soon. They were all eager that magic fans come and see the show (which runs through July 27), so let's help spread the word. The program shows that Donal Thoms-Cappello's understudy is Curt Bonnem (a magician), so I would be curious to see his take on Houdini should the opportunity arise.
The original plan for our little magic crew was to visit the grave site of Harry Kellar after the show. However, we stayed late and the cemetery was closed, so we instead wandered across the street to an antique store. There two magical surprises awaited us. The first was a gigantic original Carter poster. The other was a spotlight from the New York Hippodrome circa 1910-1920. Yes, that light could have illuminated Houdini and his vanishing elephant.
How strange for all these ghosts of magic to have come together on this one block in East Hollywood on a hot Sunday afternoon. But that's the Dark Art of...you know who.
© 2013 Wild About Harry
WOW! What do you do when you’re writer-director Jaime Robledo and your play Watson: The Last Great Tale Of The Legendary Sherlock Holmes has won just about every award in the book? Elementary, my dear reader. You do what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did after creating his mystery-solving supersleuth in A Study In Scarlet (and what Universal Pictures kept doing year after year for their own inimitable Sherlock, Basil Rathbone). You write and direct a sequel, in this case Watson And The Dark Art Of Harry Houdini, and if the results don’t match the original in sheer brilliance, Watson 2.0 does for the most part avoid the dreaded sophomore curse.
Watson And The Dark Art Of Harry Houdini brings back Scott Leggett’s Dr. John Watson and Joe Fria’s Sherlock Holmes, once again on the tail of a maniacal murderer, this time a serial killer whose many victims’ seven knife wounds each suggest the possibility of multiple perpetrators.
When similar victims begin popping up across the Atlantic, Watson and Holmes travel to America, to Coney Island to be more specific, an amusement park setting that allows director Robledo and his five “Stagehands” to create more of the same kind of cinematic-style magic they did a few years back, and at a tiny fraction of what they’d cost on Hollywood celluloid.
Like Watson: The Last Great Tale Of The Legendary Sherlock Holmes, Watson And The Dark Art Of Harry Houdini flip-flops Sherlock and Dr. W in both importance and style. Whereas Sir Arthur kept a cucumber-cool Sherlock front-and-center and a bumbling Watson in sidekick mode, Sir Jaime casts the good doctor as the smart one and the deerstalker-capped detective as comic relief (though still a master of deduction, as when he solves The Case Of The Mistletoe Murder in a hilarious, fiendishly clever opening sequence).
Watson 2.0 reunites our two heroes, estranged these past ten years, during which Dr. Watson has lost his beloved Mary, his grief unabated by the passage of time, a prolonged mourning that darkens Watson (both play and character) this time round and gives Leggett ample opportunity to prove his dramatic mettle.
Meanwhile, Fria’s Holmes is even wilder-and-crazier than ever, a zaniness considerably more Saturday Night Live than Masterpiece Theatre, and though purists may carp, it’s all part of Robledo’s tables-turning vision, which also includes a wacky Sigmund Freud (Graham Skipper slipping neatly into French Stewart’s shoes this time round).
Understudy Lordan Napoli (as Violet Hunter, the lovely young woman who just might pull John Watson out of his years-long funk) and Watson 1.0 returnees Cj Merriman as a now deceased Mary and Eric Curtis Johnson as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft complete the cast of supporting players.
Finally, as its title indicates, Watson And The Dark Art Of Harry Houdini features a third lead character, the legendary real-life illusionist, magician, and “escapologist” Harry Houdini himself, brought to sexy, charismatic life by Donal Thoms-Cappello.
Performances are once again all-around excellent, with a special tip of the hat to the extraordinary Leggett, whose 21st Century American self has vanished beneath Dr. John Watson’s very late-19th Century British skin. In a play that is often comedic, it is Leggett’s dark, brooding Watson that theatergoers will find themselves recalling in the good doctor’s second Sacred Fools outing.
Still, what gives Watson And The Dark Art Of Harry Houdini must-see status are its action set-pieces, the kind that have made Indiana Jones and James Bond perennial screen favorites, accomplished here by a combination of imagination, ingenuity, and the inestimable work of Brendan Broms, Perry Daniel, Aaron Mendelson, Mandi Moss, and Lisa Ann Nicolai as the aforementioned Stagehands.
I won’t reveal how they do it, but these fantastic five (along with lead and supporting cast members) give us a near-balletic multiple-stab murder, an Orson Wellsian hall-of-mirrors sequence, an ocean liner as it pulls away from the dock, a murder committed in rewind mode, a runaway merry-go-round a la Alfred Hitchcock, a shuffleboard match with flying pucks, a fists-of-fury fight sequence, and a rollicking rollercoaster ride, each one more ooh-and-ahh-worthy than the next.
Most thrilling of all is a one-man Houdini escape so breathtakingly envisioned by Robledo and performed while suspended upside-down from the rafters by Thoms-Cappelo that it will quite literally take your breath away.
Still, Watson And The Dark Art Of Harry Houdini is not without its weaknesses, most notably a storyline that proves (for this reviewer at least) frustratingly abstruse, and that includes the play’s abrupt ending, whose meaning escaped both me and my guest. Also, as has been the case with other Sacred Fools plays developed in weekly installments as part of the company’s smash late-night Serial Killers series, Watson And The Dark Art Of Harry Houdini could stand to lose about one episode’s worth of running time from its talkier scenes.
There can be no carping whatsoever about Robledo’s direction, the cast’s performances, and a design package that’s among the best I’ve seen at Sacred Fools.
Production designer Michael James Schneider has created an abstract, multi-level set that works particularly well in Coney Island sequences, with Stagehands often becoming part of the scenic design, whether holding windows or filling in for walls. Matt Richter’s lighting design sets precisely the right mysterious, suspenseful mood, as does composer Ryan Johnson’s richly layered original music. (Much of Watson And The Dark Art Of Harry Houdini is underscored like a movie, and very effectively so.) Linda Muggeridge has designed one gorgeous period costume after another, a bevy of finery no less detailed than those you’d expect to see in a bigger-budged regional production. Andrew Amani once again proves himself a stunt/fight choreographer par excellence, with movement consultant Natasha Norman scoring equally high marks.
Watson And The Dark Art Of Harry Houdini is produced by Brian Wallis, Brandon Clark, Laura Napoli and Abraham Benrubi. Monica Greene is assistant director, Aviva Pressman costuming assistant, Fria Suzuki trainer, and Guy Picot dialect coach. Suze Campagna is stage manager and Dana DeRuyck assistant stage manager. The behind-the-scenes team is completed by stage crew Alyson Schultz and costume crew Trey Perkins.
Though not the all-around perfect action-adventure dramedic wonder that was its predecessor, Watson And The Dark Art Of Harry Houdini once again proves a crowd-pleaser, one that makes abundantly clear that with a good deal of imagination, you need but a tiny fraction of what it would cost on the silver screen to make theatrical magic.
© 2013 StageScene L.A.
Jaime Robledo, the Poor Man's Julie Taymor
Inside East Hollywood's Sacred Fools Theatre on a recent Sunday afternoon, actor Donal Thoms-Cappello is capering through a bizarre step of percussive, deliberate foot stomps, which alternate with clanking sound effects.
"No," a voice from the gloom interrupts, "there are three clanks." A shadow makes its way to the stage where, under the lights, it takes on the lanky features of writer-director Jaime Robledo, who sidles up to Thoms-Cappello and a stagehand pantomiming a Coney Island carousel to demonstrate: "So the first one should be bang [stomp], bang [stomp], and you can both laugh." Thoms-Cappello and Robledo both let out a laugh in time with the final stomp.
The step being rehearsed is part of a runaway-carousel scene, ripped from Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, for Robledo's new show, Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini, beginning June 21. It is the kind of big, Broadway-grade spectacle on a small-stage budget that has given Robledo a reputation as the poor man's Julie Taymor -- the director who can stage the impossible.
That reputation was sealed in 2010, when Robledo's first satiric-vaudevillian riff on Conan Doyle (and this show's direct prequel), Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes, captured the imagination and praise of audiences and critics alike. It proved a huge hit for Sacred Fools and a big career boost for Robledo, who went on to stage the theater's boffo Buster Keaton bio-drama, Stoneface, to even greater acclaim last year. (That show has been picked up by the Pasadena Playhouse for a main-stage production later this season.)
During a break, the writer-director admits that he enjoys the challenge that comes with telling big stories on a small stage. "If a scenario scares the crap out of me, that's when I know I have to do it," Robledo says matter-of-factly. "I don't let any of the difficulties connected with putting it up deter me."
In the first Watson, those difficulties included such eventual coups de théâtre as staging a hot-air balloon flight, a hair-raising fight on a Turkish minaret and a re-creation of the Cliffs of Dover as Holmes and Watson pursued their quarry (and Holmes' very personal demons) across the European continent.
The new show ups the ante, taking the British crime-fighters across the Atlantic to the wilds of turn-of-the-century New York and a multiple-murder mystery involving spiritualism and Houdini himself. The runaway carousel is merely one of a number of choreographed stage stunts that comprise a re-creation of old Coney Island, which include Watson and Holmes riding a roller coaster and in a burlesqued foot chase through the stalls of the midway.
What the two Watsons have most in common, however, is an inventive visual wit and wryly anachronistic sense of humor, which pays fond homage to the Holmesian universe of Victorian scientific rationalism and cold deductive logic even as it gleefully tears it apart laugh by satiric laugh.
"There's a lot of irony in there," Robledo says. "I make Beatles jokes, because there's a scene that takes place in Liverpool. I make a joke about the Flying Spaghetti Monster, if you know what that is. But [the comedy succeeds] because I'm writing for certain [actors], and I know how they make things funny. ... So Joe Fria [who plays Holmes] has this rubbery body and this just insanely sharp, improv-comedy mind. Our new Freud is Graham Skipper, who was Herbert West in [the L.A. Weekly Award-winning] Re-Animator: The Musical, and he's got this high energy bursting from within -- just bat-shit insane kind of humor, which is a little different from [original Freud] French Stewart, who is a different kind of clown."
Where Robledo's Watson franchise most departs from Conan Doyle is in its elevation of Sherlock's underrated sidekick to star billing. If Watson isn't exactly the hero of the story, neither is he merely Holmes' stooge. The idea for the job promotion was inspired in part by Robledo's admiration for more recent, psychologically complex takes on Holmes that include the 1971 film adaptation of playwright James Goldman's They Might Be Giants and Nicholas Meyer's 1974 novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.
Like those works, Robledo set out to "really kind of delve into that friendship between Holmes and Watson, and how they operate and what they mean to each other, and how one helps the other." And while he refuses to put explicitly Freudian labels on his creations, he doesn't deny that there is a bit of id and superego at work in their partnership.
"In my world," Robledo says, "Watson is the adult and Holmes is the child."
© 2013 L.A. Weekly
Watson Meets Houdini at Sacred Fools
Didn’t get enough of Watson at Sacred Fools Theater in late 2010, or when it returned in the summer of 2011? Don’t worry — the saga continues. Writer/director Jaime Robledo’s sequel Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini, reportedly darker and more personal, opened last Friday.
Like the original, the sequel is at Sacred Fools, which operates out of a black box theater space, seating 74 to 88, near Los Angeles City College. The company’s shoestring budgets and the lack of a fly tower for elaborate scenery forces writers and directors to come up with creative staging solutions. These limitations helped craft the innovative style of the Watson series.
An early version of the first play, which is officially known by its complete title — Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes — was developed during the company’s late-night Serial Killers season in 2009. Serial Killers is an intense, hothouse environment in which the writers are given a mere six days to write, cast, rehearse and tech each new chapter in their saga. Audience voting determines which shows return the following week. Lasting 21 weeks, Watson proved a fan favorite and went on to gain a full production in 2010, followed by the second run in 2011.
It was the first full-length play that Robledo both wrote and directed, and he won an LA Weekly award for his staging. One of the actors, Henry Dittman, won an Ovation for it. Critics were encouraging. Robledo, whose directing career has blossomed since the first Watson, will graduate to LA’s big leagues next fall, when he is slated to stage another of his Sacred Fools-originated projects, Stoneface, at Pasadena Playhouse.
The first Watson, which starred Scott Leggett as the benign Dr. John H. Watson and Joe Fria as a manic Sherlock Holmes, has since been published and is now being produced elsewhere. In fact, this new show will be running concurrently with a production of the original Watson, opening next week at the Gretna Theatre in Mt. Gretna, PA.
Many of the key players are returning to their roles for this next installment, including Leggett and Fria, while Graham Skipper replaces French Stewart as Sigmund Freud. One of the newest characters is, of course, the enigmatic illusionist Harry Houdini, portrayed by Donal Thoms-Cappello.
London’s most acclaimed detective Sherlock Holmes and his trusty aide Dr. Watson combine their sleuthing talents to uncover a brutal killer. Their hunt takes them to New York where their path crosses that of the legendary and mysterious escape artist mysterious Harry Houdini. Can the elusive magician help or hinder their quest?
A new direction.
While Monica Greene is once again his assistant director, Robledo has assembled a new creative team for this production. As the writer/director explains, “Our previous costumer moved to Oklahoma and our previous set designer was not available for this production.” Robledo did, however, retain the services of Ryan Johnson, who has composed the music for both shows.
Their collaboration came about in mid-2010, when Johnson served as musical director for Sacred Fools’ production of Richard Elfman’s musical Forbidden Zone: Live In The 6th Dimension — a zany show in which Robledo had a small performing role as a tap-dancing frog.
Remembers Johnson, “Watson started off as a Serial Killers contender and I thought it had awesome staging and ideas. I took Jaime aside and told him, ‘If this goes mainstage — which I knew he wanted — I want to give you some original music’.”
For the first play, Robledo’s musical brief for Johnson was to create a composition for a string quartet — something he had never written. “I pulled every favor I could,” he recalls, assembling Cathy Allen on cello, John Schimm on viola and Dan Graziani on violin (playing both violin parts). “Stylistically, the music was reminiscent of the Victorian era, but Jaime had been using some Philip Glass for writing inspiration.” What the pair dreamed up was a combination of those two influences, with some Indiana Jones-style action adventure scoring thrown in for good measure.
For the sequel, Robledo requested a fuller orchestral sound. Says Johnson, “The overall tone of this show is darker than the first, and so the music will reflect that.” Elaborating, he adds, “It’s more dissonant, still taking many of the same ideas but making them more grandiose.”
On encapsulating the characters with distinct music, Johnson explains, “Watson’s wife Mary has a particular theme, which was one of my favorite things that I put together for the last show.” He recalls it was a sweet and somber theme that took inspiration from Elgar. “I remember thinking, ‘Ah, I did something right!’” he says, self-deprecatingly. In developing her theme, the composer built more orchestration around it and shifted it to a minor key for some of the murkier and more reflective moments.
Watson has a main theme that is not tied to the character so much as the overall story. “That’s an adventure theme that I intersperse throughout the play,” says the composer. Additionally, the new character of Houdini opened up many musical opportunities for Johnson to explore. “Obviously there’s a lot of dark mystery and I get to use celeste and pizzicato strings — stuff that sounds mystical. I used a lot of effects that you might hear in a horror movie, such as dissonant strings glissando-ing out into nothing.”
A series develops.
Discussing the evolution of his Watson franchise, Robledo charts its progress. “This sequel was also originally written for the Serial Killer playoffs. I felt that if I was going to continue this story, it should be a darker tale. I wanted to try something else. I had Hitchcock thrillers in my head — I wanted to explore that kind of territory.”
Robledo says the resulting play has a similar trajectory to that of its Serial Killer incarnation. “But I kind of stepped away from it for a while, did other things, lived some interesting life and grew up. I had some success and some failures and heartache, all that kind of stuff. I felt that Watson was the perfect vessel for all of that. It’s my creation — I know these people, these actors; I can pour all those experiences into the writing.”
Robledo wrote the bare-bones outline — a first draft, of sorts — in January 2011, but he didn’t set to work crafting the play until earlier this year. “Finally, when I got to sit with it, I got to focus on it exclusively. Some of the original cast members came in to read my first draft.” Explaining how it all took shape, Robledo says, “I get all this feedback and then maybe a couple of weeks later I’ll have another draft. There are some really great, established writers in our company who help out, like Bob DeRosa and Padraic Duffy — Padraic’s the guy I bounce stuff off. He’ll tell me what’s working, what isn’t, what would be interesting to see… He is a writer who directs. I am a director who writes,” then adds, “But as far as the workshop process goes, I’m very much the one driving the bus.”
Even a week and a half before opening night, Robledo reveals the script is still being fine-tuned. “Once you get to this point in the process, sometimes you hear an echo, or a line is repeated, but it doesn’t sound right, or a joke doesn’t land. You’re tweaking, you’re polishing the burrs off. You’re making sure you’ve laid enough pipe for something that happens at the end.”
Robledo speaks highly of his assistant director, Greene. She “works above and beyond what most ADs do,” he says. “I allow her to give notes directly to actors and she catches things I miss creatively. She’s been essentially my right-hand woman during the process.”
Commenting on the new direction the series is taking, Greene says, “It is different and more grim. Holmes and Watson are not the same Holmes and Watson that we left off with in the first one; they have a very different relationship this time around. Watching them interact differently, as well as complete the mission, is another element.”
Adds Robledo, “In a way, yes, it does pick up where we left off. But some significant time has passed and some very specific things have happened that have damaged their friendship. I play with the convention of sequels with this one, too.”
Familiar faces and new cast members.
Most of the original cast members are back to reprise their roles, namely Leggett and Fria as the two leads, Eric Curtis Johnson as Mycroft Holmes and CJ Merriman as Mary Morstan Watson. In addition to the newest characters of Harry Houdini (Donal Thoms-Cappello) and Carrie Keranen as Violet Hunter (a minor character from Doyle’s novels), Graham Skipper plays Sigmund Freud and the “stagehands” (ensemble cast members) will be played by Lisa Anne Nicolai, Mandi Moss, Brendan Broms, Aaron Mendelson and Perry Daniel.
Speaking of the ensemble, Robledo says, “They’re my ‘shock’ troops—they represent everything around the characters. They work in — hopefully — military precision. They don’t just move stuff on and off stage, they are the world. They are a carousel, a roller coaster, the streets of London, the lights on a pier…” Robledo employs them strategically, almost as pieces on a shuffleboard game.
Because of the venue’s limitations, “we can’t have mechanized things coming into place, [s0] I figured let’s just see seams, and make [sure] the mechanics are physical entities, people,” he says, adding, “Watson as a franchise is about including the audience, and letting them fill in the blanks.”
Greene elaborates, “With the stagehands, you definitely root for them and you want to see what they are gonna do next.”
Johnson chimes in, saying it was this very aspect that impelled him to join up with Robledo. “It’s inventive and it is something to do with a small theater that you can have all these special effects but instead of trying to fool anyone, we show it to them and make it artful.”
Speaking of his cast, Robledo emphasizes the collaborative approach to staging these works. “From Scott Leggett, Joe Fria on down — they are all remarkable. They live and breathe these characters. I don’t ‘puppet-master’ them — I wind them up and put them in place and see where they go. And if they go too far one way, I pull them in, or push them the other way. I’m not an acting teacher, so I don’t approach acting that way. I say ‘I am not your acting coach — you get there how you’re gonna get there. I’ll tell you what I want and what you are doing well and oftentimes if you are doing great, then I won’t say anything.’ But my cast is so intuitive and they have latitude with the text — I’m not super religious about my words. These are their characters as much as they are mine. They come up with things that I could never conceive. My job, a lot of the time, is just to say ‘yes.’ If this play is a vessel on the sea, they’re the ones pulling the ropes. They are incredibly brilliant, incredibly talented.”
As for a further installment to complete the Watson franchise, Robledo is keeping his cards close to his chest. “I have an idea to do a third and final installment, but I can’t really discuss that until you see this play,” he smiles enigmatically.
© 2013 L.A. Stage Times