There’s a moment in Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily when Sherlock Holmes joyfully utters “The game’s afoot”… only to have his pursuit of the case derailed by another knock on the door, introducing another character. This bit is perhaps the best encapsulation of the occasionally fun, definitely overstuffed play full of both mystery and history, staged by the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
Jersey Lily combines Holmes canon together with bits and pieces of actual Victorian history–stage actress Lillie Langtry, famed playwright Oscar Wilde, and Queen Victoria’s royal attendant Abdul Karim are all on the canvas–which provides a great bit of fun for fans of Victoria era goings on but doesn’t result in the most cohesive narrative, and the need to provide context for individuals who may not be steeped in that era’s trivia can grind the gears of the main goal of any Holmes staging, which is to see Holmes and Watson put their brains and brawn together to unravel a case.
But these challenges are largely those of the page, and the MCT creative team bring their very best to this production. Brandon Kirkham, the scenic designer, takes this mash-up and creates arresting collage backdrops, quilting together Doyle illustrations, patterns from the costumes, renderings of paintings of the era and, in the tense Act 2 showdown between the heroes and the villains, spooky renderings of skulls and weaponry to create both atmosphere and a visual homage to the many influences in the script. It is detailed, thoughtful, and visually compelling work and reason enough to see the production, particularly in MCT’s charming mini-opera house space.
As Lillie Langtry, Kay Allmand does similar detailed and thoughtful work in her performance, portraying a woman who is both honest and guileless and protective of her privacy and her true self. She does her best work with Rick Pendzich, establishing a playful, devoted friendship with his Oscar Wilde through a series of shared glances and embraces. The connection seems genuine and strong, which lifts the dialogue and gives real stakes to the case. Allmand also shares a scene with Jesse Bhamrah, tasked with double duty as the royal attendant Karim and a London tough entangled in the case, that would be a mere throwaway were it not for the case Allmand takes to present Langtry not as a noir seductress but as a human reaching out to a fellow human in a bad situation out of intellectual curiosity and empathy.
And enough can’t be said of the fizz Pendzich gives to his Wilde, wearing his Irish tweeds and boutonnière with panache and spinning every line, whether a well-known bon mot or a friendly exchange with friend (and collaborator?) Holmes, with a delightful balance of champagne dry wit and warmth that enlivened every scene he was in. I found myself pondering the possibilities of a Pendzich-led production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.
The main three performers charged with the Doyle canon characters, Brian Gill as Sherlock Holmes, Ryan Schabah as Dr. John Watson, and Matt Daniels as Professor Moriarty, also do strong work, though because of the script’s packed roster, it sometimes gets swallowed up by the particularly dense layers of the case. Daniels in particular makes fine work of the physical aspects of Holmes, perching in his chair like a bird or inhabiting the role of a stage actress of a certain age, and portrays a Holmes whose mind races but has the social grace and thoughtfulness to cultivate friendships.
Challenges with the script aside, Sherlock Holmes and the Jersey Lily is a fine, fun theater experience. As Holmes made some of his most brilliant deductions, several audience members murmured knowing “Ah”s and “Mm hmm”s, and in the end, that shows the production is succeeding in making Holmeses and Watsons of us all.
All photos courtesy Paul Ruffolo
Ticket and information at the milwaukeechambertheatre website