Playwright: Steven Dietz, adapted from the play by Arthur Conan Doyle and William Gillette. At: Idle Muse Theatre Company at the Side Project, 1439 W. Jarvis. Phone: 773-382-2472; $20. Runs through: Aug. 22
Somewhere it's written that cold-blooded Victorian gentlemen cannot swash and swagger with cavalier flair, but upstart American authors have ratified exceptions to that rule throughout their nation's literary history. And so in 1899, Arthur Conan Doyle's hypercerebral hero was permitted to court a ladyon sound scientific principles, naturallywhen triple-threat William Gillette adapted several of the famous whodunits into the hit drama that introduced the image of the deerstalker-capped, calabash-smoking slueth that we recognize to this day.
Prevailing show-business wisdom also dictates that you can't sell 19th-century melodrama to modern audiences, especially on a storefront stage barely 12 feet square. How do you replicate the picturesque localesfashionable London townhouses, bankside industrial plants, pastoral gardens along the Danube? Won't audiences scoff at the stock charactersruthless villains, straitlaced maidens, bumbling aristocrats and comical servants? And what about the elaborate special effects likewise characteristic of the genre? With Steven Dietz's 2006 adaptation of the Doyle-Gillette collaboration setting a waggish tone stopping just short of parody, wouldn't it be easierand saferto simply shrug off the whole thing as giggly camp?
Fortunately, Evan Jackson and the Idle Muse Theatre Company have, from their very inception, essayed only the most challenging of projects. Their realization of this vintage action-adventure tale overcomes its limitations with an alacrity as seemingly effortless as that with which their genius detective uncovers clues, outwits adversaries and resolves disorder presenting a threat to his society. Credit Jackson for directing his cast to play their roles seriously, with no winks or asideseven when encumbered by a running gag involving Holmes' exhaustive reference library. Conviction like this, conveyed with understatement proportionate to its intimate quarters, renders plausible the most artificial of occurrences.
Artifice being unavoidable in close quarters, however, Dennis Mae's scenic design embraces such imaginative motifs as set dressing etched on plexiglass panels, relying instead on the expository dialogue to locate us in our various milieux. The actors' youthfulness becomes invisible after a few minutes, Luke Hamilton personifying the austere Holmes with the able support of Nathan Pease's meek Dr. Watson and Elizabeth Macdougald's feisty Irene Adler. But the chief factor generating the requisite suspense is Nathan Thompson's chilling portrayal of the evil Dr. Moriarty, whoarmed only with a deadly looking caneradiates more menace than any modern WMD-schlepping baddie.