Sherlock Holmes and the Dangerous Game | Maplewood Barn Community Theatre

"The first thing I did was try and remember what it was about Sherlock Holmes that excited me," Pope said.

 

By Martin Pope
Directed by Chris Bowling

Columbia, Missouri, may not be a destination city for theater-lovers – unless you know someone involved with a show. Such was the circumstance that drew me to the Maplewood Barn Community Theatre, an outdoor theater in a small park on the south end of Columbia, to see Sherlock Holmes and the Dangerous Game, the work of two artists I went to college with, Martin Pope and Chris Bowling (playwright and director, respectively).

The audience sat on lawn chairs and blankets. The stage is outside, on the back of a barn, which is actually in the vicinity of farm animals. During the pre-show announcements, a small enclosure of young goats offered commentary, which got a few pre-show laughs out of the audience.

Sherlock Holmes and the Dangerous Game is based on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle. While working for The Long Beach Shakespeare Company in Los Angeles, Pope said he was asked to adapt some Doyle short stories for the stage. "The first thing I did was try and remember what it was about Sherlock Holmes that excited me," Pope said. He hoped to avoid writing a play that was "boring and pretentious." Those recollections led to lists, Pope said, of "imagery, sounds, and actions," among other things.

"At this point I was trying to build a composite Holmes," Pope said, rather than trying to adapt a particular story. Elements such as sword fighting, cocaine use, and Holmes' egotism played into the composite.

At the same time, he began reading about Victorian England. "But not being an academic," Pope said, "I was only looking for what excited me."

Next, he began writing the first scene involving Holmes and Watson, which reveals that Watson has hidden Holmes' cocaine. "It came out of me straightaway," Pope said. "The scene appears in the play almost exactly as I wrote it then."

It wasn't until this point that Pope began looking for a short story, one to which he could attach the newly-written scene. Pope, who was scheduled to star in, as well as write, the play, also wanted a story which could incorporate a sword fight, because participating in a staged sword fight had long been a dream of his. However, he couldn't find a story that fit the requirements. "But I did stumble upon a few that, with a little tweaking, I could manhandle into the bawdy melodrama I wanted."

Pope said the play is loosely based on a story titled "The Illustrious Client," but incorporates elements of others, including "The Sign of Four" and "The Naval Plans." 

Over the next five months, he wrote five or six drafts, working from an outline and filling in amusing lines he'd written on note cards.

"The play was very well-received in the small venue it was written for," Pope said, about the LBSC production. "It sold out all but four performances (playing for eight weeks) and was the first play that ever paid the LBSC's bills from ticket sales, with no subsidy."

Chris Bowling, who directed the Maplewood Barn Theatre production, had traveled to Los Angeles to see the LBSC production. He took a script back to Columbia.

"We joked about the possibility of staging it [in Columbia]," Pope said, "But I never expected it to happen." To his surprise, Maplewood agreed.

Pope was able to attend all three performances of the opening weekend of the Maplewood run. "I hope the audience members who didn't write the play had as much fun as I did," he said.

The action of the play began on the grass at the foot of the stage, with a duel between two aristocrats. In the next scene, the scattered Holmes (charmingly portrayed by Curt Wohleber) and the befuddled Watson bide time, as Holmes, bored, attempts to entertains himself, while Watson tries to write. Not surprisingly, it wasn't long before a case found Watson.

The two acts before intermission, though full of exposition, moved along all right, but during the third act, it was suddenly easy to forget that one was sitting in a lawn chair on a chilly May evening.

When the action moved to the south end of the stage, some lines were difficult to catch, thanks to traffic noise from the roads beyond. The specter of the big, red barn looming up over the Victorian set was difficult to reconcile at first, but the set itself was well done, with the exception of a table, supposedly part of the furnishings of a Baron, which looked as if it were made of two-by-fours spray-painted with dull black paint.

Despite a few dropped lines (all recovered nicely) and a lag here or there in the pacing, the production was overall entertaining, especially when Holmes or Baron Hans Gruner, the enemy-played by Seth Lombardi-were on stage. Bowling's direction made good use of the stage and the surrounding grass. Some of the fight scenes were funny, rather than frightening, but that seemed just fine for an outdoor community theater.

Also notable was Sharon Quinn, as Peppermint Hastings, "A dance hall singer fallen on hard times," as the program stated. Quinn caught the petulant pout of a jilted lover perfectly, although when she wasn't speaking, she almost seemed completely vacant, as if no longer present mentally. Tyeece Little, as Mrs. Hudson ("A fussy landlady") was quite over-the-top and enjoyable while protecting Mr. Holmes after he'd gotten into a bit of a scrape. Tom Bauer, as Professor James Moriarty ("A mysterious villain") was also notable, if nothing else for his villainous sideburns. It was slightly disconcerting that the only black actor, Yule Owens, was cast as Shinwell Johnson ("A street-savvy reformed criminal"). Owens was likeable, though, in the stereotypically cast role. Some of his lines weren't clear, but given the nature of the character, it didn't seem to matter.

Pope said he has plans to write a five-play cycle of Holmes plays, "culminating in a showdown between Holmes and Jack the Ripper." He's currently working on forming a theater company in L.A., which he hopes will be the next home for the series, but he said, "I'd love to see it staged in other cities; in fact, in any city that would have it.

"I'd love to hear from anyone interested in this," Pope said. He can be reached by e-mail at buzzdino@comcast.net.

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