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It is often difficult to determine where life intersects art. Consequently, that juncture has always intrigued artists and audiences. The relationship is especially interesting in theater, where what we see has the appearance of life unfolding before us.
The shifting boundaries between illusion and reality are everywhere in Pioneer Theatre Company's playful and stylish production of Anthony and Marcia Milgrom Dodge's "Sherlock Holmes & the West End Horror." The Dodges use the framework of a murder mystery to tie the play together, but it's the theatrical in-jokes and clever overturning of stage conventions that make the show interesting and entertaining.
The curtain opens to reveal another proscenium arch and curtain as if we're watching a play within a play. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, the fictional characters, are portrayed by the same two actors throughout; the other characters, based on actual people like George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Gilbert and Sullivan, are played by the other five actors, sometimes across gender lines, which makes them seem less real. Actors rush onto the stage to create sound effects, and a piano player accents the action with musical flourishes in the style of an old melodrama.
Shaw brings Holmes a murder to solve, and another quickly follows - Jonathan McCarthy, a vitriolic, blackmailing theater critic (oops), and Jessie Rutland, a young actress who may have been his mistress. But we never see a body; we only hear Holmes and Watson analyze their findings. The clue to the murders lies in the text of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," and along the way, Holmes and Watson give Shaw the idea for "Pygmalion" (the source for "My Fair Lady") and break into Bram Stoker's apartment, where they stumble upon the manuscript of Dracula.
Not surprisingly, the cast romps through this theatrical pastiche with abandon. Richard B. Watson's Sherlock Holmes outdramatizes the competition, and Max Robinson's wry, ever-practical Dr. Watson is his perfect foil. Kurt Zischke's talkative but charming Shaw, Mark Shanahan's flamboyant Oscar Wilde, Craig Wroe's inept Inspector Lestrade, and Kevin Doyle's ditzy, gossiping Ellen Terry are just some of the well-wrought ensemble performances; Jennifer Waldman does especially well with her cross-gender portraits of an observant constable and a discriminated-against Indian suspect. Steven Barlow's piano accompaniment is droll and lively.
Co-author Marcia Dodge's tongue-in-cheek, rapid-fire direction stops just short of going over the top. Troy Hourie's set, with its pen-and-ink backdrop sketch of Victorian London, shells of buildings, and flexible, funky doors and windows, captures the artifice of the play. Carol Wells Day's period costumes range from fashionably formal for Holmes and Watson to colorful and tweedy for their theatrical compatriots; Shaw's outfit truly makes him look like the overgrown leprechaun Holmes describes.
"Sherlock Holmes & the West End Horror" may not be what Arthur Conan Doyle had in mind, but its inventive exploitation of theater personalities and their larger-than-life world is remarkably entertaining.
"Sherlock Holmes & the West End Horror"
Where: Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. University Ave., Salt Lake City
When: Mondays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Saturday matinees at 2 p.m., through Nov. 5.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: Tickets are $20-$39 with discounts for students and groups. Call 801-581-6961 or visit http://www.pioneertheatre.org.
Bottom line: This production's clever combination of a whodunit plot line with obviously theatrical jokes and conventions, tied together in a professional package, creates an enjoyable evening at the theater.