If you went to sleep away camp, you’re familiar with the tradition of the annual end-of-summer variety show. A team of tightly-knit campers typically prepares a song, dance, or skit, ostensibly for the enjoyment of its viewers. These performances are often silly, usually self-referential and always self-indulgent. Inadvertently, these well-intentioned campers perform for themselves, incorporating every inside joke accumulated over the course of the summer and showcasing talents that might be lacking.
Anyone who has attended a show of this nature understands the sensations of bewilderment and isolation an audience member feels at this bizarre display of self-obsession. And, should you attend a performance of NACL’s The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes at Here Arts this month, you might experience a sense of déjà vu at witnessing a performance seemingly designed for the satisfaction of its creators, with disappointingly little consideration of its audience.
NACL (North American Cultural Laboratory) was founded in 1997, and consists of four core members, all of whom appear in The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes. Co-founder Brad Krumholz both wrote and directed this particular performance, and appears in the minor role of Silent Sonny. The group’s other founder, Tannis Kowalchuk, takes on the more substantial and sexually ambiguous role of Dr. Watson, while the two remaining members, Sarah Dey Hirshan and Glenn Hall, each portray several characters and inanimate objects. Liz Eckert also wears a variety of hats, both literally and figuratively, and Brett Keyser rounds out the ensemble in the role of Sherlock Holmes.
Even the most critical audience member must commend these performers for their versatility: during the play’s two acts, each actor is forced to sing, play an instrument, perform impressive physical feats and execute complex costume changes in approximately ten seconds. That said, the same audience member might question why these various songs, dances, gymnastic routines and clothing swaps are taking place. Amidst the chaos of these competing elements, it becomes incredibly difficult to follow the plot of the play, or to develop any legitimate interest in the highly-stylized characters. Sherlock Holmes is a play saturated with spectacle, but deeply lacking in real substance. It displays much camp variety show-style self indulgence, which is all the more disappointing considering the strength of some of its performers, and the potential hilarity of the subject matter.
The play’s freshest performance undoubtedly comes from Keyser, whose portrayal of Sherlock Holmes playfully channels rock legends David Byrne and David Bowie, with delightfully bizarre results. Hirshan also excels in the role of Jacqueline Derrida (like the TV series Lost, Sherlock Holmes shamelessly references major figures in the cannon of Western philosophy, without any clear purpose) and it is a pleasure to watch Holmes and Derrida attempt to out-sleuth each other. Had NACL decided to present the same play without the distraction of mediocre rock songs and unnecessary physical stunts, The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes might have been a clever and engaging reexamination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic protagonist.
As is, we think your time is better spent faking sick to your counselor, skipping the show, and reading the real thing back in your bunk.
– Anne Fenton