Los Angeles Theater Review: WATSON AND THE DARK ART OF HARRY HOUDINI (Sacred Fools)

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by Tom Chaits on June 24, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


Writer/Director Jaime Robledo follows up his award-winning smash hit Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes (reviewed here) with a world premiere sequel Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini at the Sacred Fools Theater in Hollywood and the result is a mysterious mess of dueling styles. To paraphrase Dickens, “it was the best of direction, it was the worst of direction.”  While there are truly brilliant directorial flourishes on view they are negated by the over-the-top attempt at comedy which is not only wildly unsuccessful but totally Tom Chaits' Stage and Cinema LA review of WATSON AND THE DARK HEART OF HARRY HOUDINI at Sacred Fools.unbelievable, completely amateurish and ultimately irritating to watch.

The story opens in London where a series of unsolved murders brings the investigative prowess of Holmes and Watson back together again. When the pattern of the murders seems to be repeating itself in New York City, the boys hop a boat and head to Coney Island. Enter Harry Houdini and the plot thickens as the dynamic duo seeks to unravel the mystery which Mr. Houdini may know more about than he is saying.

Robledo has had some great triumphs with his directing. In fact Stoneface (reviewed here), which garnered him several “Best Director” nods, will soon transfer to The Pasadena Playhouse. It is precisely his impressive past accomplishments that begs the question, “What was he thinking?” Dramas with comedy relief have been around for ages. The ability of a writer or director to have you laughing in the aisles at one minute and crying the next can provide a truly cathartic theatrical experience. However that is not the case here. The two styles on display in Watson are so diametrically opposed they mix together about as well as oil and water.

On the one hand you have a highly stylized presentation with honest and truthful performances. The opening murder is artfully staged and beautifully realized.  With the help of a band of mute players dressed in traditional Italian funeral garb, several scenes unfold with a magical and profound effect: Houdini’s unexpected second act entrance, a stroll across a lighted bridge, a roller coaster ride and a chase through a Tom Chaits' Stage and Cinema LA review of WATSON AND THE DARK HEART OF HARRY HOUDINI at Sacred Fools.mirrored funhouse are all highly imaginative and mesmerizing to watch.

Watson (Scott Leggett), Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (u/s Troy Vincent), Houdini (Donal Thomas-Cappello, and the two women, Carrie Keranen as Violet and Cj Merriman as Mary (Watson’s dearly departed wife) all shine and measure up to a level of technical excellence you would expect to see on Masterpiece Theater. Their honest and deeply involving portrayals embody the perfect tone for the piece.

The simple but strikingly effective set (production designer Michael James Schneider) is a patchwork of platforms, mix matched crossing beams and painted wooden flooring that immediately alerts the viewer something is amiss. Matt Richter’s moody lighting, reminiscent of an old black and white Jack the Ripper movie, bathes the stage in a mystical glow. Linda Muggeridge’s costumes lend an authentic period feel while the original music by composer Ryan Johnson permeates the room with an eerie and foreboding fog.

On the other hand, you have an in-your-face farce with dumbfounding and astonishingly bad acting that jerks the viewer out of the mood and moment the director and superb technical crew have so proficiently crafted. It’s almost as though Tom Chaits' Stage and Cinema LA review of WATSON AND THE DARK HEART OF HARRY HOUDINI at Sacred Fools.there were two different directors, each staging half the scenes and then slamming them together for the final product.

Joe Fria, reprising his role as Sherlock, is in a word, “awful.” He plays the master sleuth as a bungling buffoon and comes off as if he’s doing a bad impersonation of Groucho Marx doing a bad impersonation of Sherlock Holmes. Although the opening night audience was clearly filled with fans and friends of Mr. Fria who found his antics to be utterly hysterical, I did not.

Not to be outdone in the “Who can chomp the most scenery” competition, Graham Skipper portrays Sigmund Freud with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer blow to the head. It doesn’t help matters that, for some unknown reason, Mr. Robledo has the character speaking in modern day vernacular and jargon. It is totally jarring and inappropriate. In addition, it appears Mr. Skipper is also portraying the character of a reporter. The role is not listed in the program but it looks like him, sounds like him Tom Chaits' Stage and Cinema LA review of WATSON AND THE DARK HEART OF HARRY HOUDINI at Sacred Fools.and I doubt they could find another actor who could deliver such a clueless and ridiculous performance matched in ineptitude only by his cartoonish interpretation of Freud.

Comedy and drama, mystery and mayhem can mix but only when there is a singular vision that melds the two styles into something truly wonderful. Mr. Robledo’s approach to his own material does not in any way portray a singular vision and his Jekyll and Hyde direction sinks what could have been a great night in the theater.

graphic design by Curt Bonnem
photos by Jessica Sherman Photography

Watson and The Dark Art of Harry Houdini
Sacred Fools Theater Company, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr.
scheduled to end on July 27, 2013
EXTENDED through August 17, 2013
for tickets, call (310) 281-8337 or visit http://www.sacredfools.org/

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