When Guy Ritchie re-imagined the iconic character of Sherlock Holmes on film last year as a hard-living, butt-kicking action hero, die-hard fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation were anxious to say the least. But the quirky honesty of Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal won over the skeptics (for the most part), and perhaps that success inspired Jeffrey Schmidt to tinker with his stage recreation of the famous sleuth. The press release for Sherlock Holmes in The Crucifer of Blood states that this version of the 1978 Broadway play has been given a “steampunk edge.” Aside from the impressive moving set (also designed by Mr. Schmidt) constructed of cogs and wheels, and the omnipresent goggles worn by nearly every male character, there is little to define this production as steampunk, let alone differentiate this Sherlock Holmes from any of his predecessors. But a few questionable design decisions notwithstanding, Theatre Three’s presentation of the play is campy, suspenseful, and everything you’d desire in a classic mystery.
Taking its audience from the far exotic deserts of India to the seedy opium dens of 1850s England to familiar 221-B Baker Street, The Crucifer of Blood offers up a tale of horrifying curses and secret identities. When Captain Neville St. Clair enters into a pact with two fellow British soldiers after discovering a treasure chest full of gold and jewels in India, he seals his fate. Thirty years later he receives his portion of the bloody crucifer—a symbol of the sacred oath never written down—in the mail and promptly disappears, to the great anguish of his daughter, Irene. After securing the services of the infamous detective and his ever-present sidekick Dr. John Watson, Irene sets out to locate her father and solve the terrifying mystery surrounding his earlier years.
As mentioned before, Jeffrey Schmidt’s clever use of Theatre Three’s theater-in-the-round setup includes a three-tiered set that evokes a sooty, dangerous, machine-driven England. Fabric scrims and various props appear as needed to re-create the many locales. Combined with Amanda West’s moody lighting and Marco Salinas’ frantic, creepy musical interludes, the sense of tension runs high. After establishing period details with the costumes designed by Aaron Patrick Turner, Kristin Colaneri’s makeup strikes an odd double chord. On one hand, the sunken cheeks and hollowed eyes of the male characters heighten the sense of dread, making each look as if they were teetering on the edge of death. But Irene’s peaches-and-cream complexion, marred by a strange red slash (was it fabric? Gel?) above her right eyebrow brought only confusion. An attempt at punk or not, it demands unnecessary attention for three-quarters of the show, until it blissfully and confusingly disappears near the finale.
The pressure to step into the shoes of such a well-known literary character as Sherlock Holmes is daunting, and knowing that Charlton Heston played the role not only on stage but also in the film adaptation surely doesn’t make it any easier. Chuck Huber delivers a solid performance even without the famous deerstalker hat. The only incongruity is Holmes’ well-known cocaine addiction. Instead of hopping him up with manic energy, the mixture seems almost to mellow him out, and any reference to the highly addictive drug disappears completely after the first encounter. Succeeding as his foil is not the boyishly bland Dr. Watson (Austin Tindle), but instead the proud but incompetent Inspector Lestrade, smartly played by Jakie Cabe. Gregory Lush is also given ample room to flounce, trill, and generally overact in the most charming way possible as Major Alistair Ross. As its sole female presence, Hilary Couch brings a predictably Victorian female approach: lots of screaming and swooning, barely anything else.
Since the Sherlock Holmes mysteries are many, it’s no surprise that the ending is less of a conclusion than a setup for the next adventure. Upon exiting, the man behind me remarked, “I’d love to come back and see the one about the giant rat.” Do I smell a sequel?