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A CurtainUp Review

Crucifer of Blood

Paul Giovanni's stage noir seems to have it all: Sherlock Holmes, that most famous of all sleuths as a very young man portrayed by a Tony-Award winning actor, his side kick Dr. Watson smitten with the mysterious maiden in distress, a bit of genre spoofing to add laughs to the intrigue. Roll it all into several fog-drenched, evocatively lit sets and it looks like a sure fire summer hit. Director Christopher Renshaw and his design team have indeed mounted Crucifer with all the visual bells and whistles that lend spice to a good melodrama.

For starters, he takes us to India during the mutiny of 1857 prejudice where three English soldiers commit a murder most foul. From the scene of the crime its fast forward to thirty years later and Sherlock Holmes' book lined London flat where Holmes and Watson become embroiled in the aftermath of the murder. There are further scene shifts to the parlor of one of the English officers, an opium den and a boat at the foot of the Thames.

Rob Odorisio's sets and Brian Nason's lighting design are exemplary evocations of mood, effectively underscored by composer Scott Killian's incidental music. Director Renshaw cleverly uses the ensemble of Indian "untouchables" from the first scene to accomplish the multiple set shifts and at the same time maintain a sense of connection between the original crime scene and the places where everything finally unravels. As impressive as all this stagecraft is, it fails in doing its job. Instead of creating atmosphere, it literally upstages the play and the players.

The mystery's beginning during the British Raj period makes a nice point about how the greed and prejudice of colonialism made a natural breeding ground for amoral actions -- during its heyday, and as the not entirely surprising denouement proves, for a long time afterwards. However, as the playwright obviously recognized even twenty years ago, war-horse melodramas like this work best when they manage to navigate the fine line between playing true to the genre and spoofing it. While Crucifer of Blood does leaven its heavy intrigue with some amusing camp, it doesn't do so often enough. For the most part things move along at a painfully slow pace (this even goes for some of the set changes which at times remind one of the pot of water that seems never to come to a boil).

Stephen Spinella 's arrival on stage, when it finally comes, is so jarring that it smacks of miscasting. Unlike the opium smoking Holmes we're all familiar with, this boyish Holmes injects himself with cocaine. The problem is not with the drug of choice but with the way it's introduced. We hear an unseen Holmes muttering incoherently then watch him burst into his study aquiver with the need for a fix. This is a street corner dope addict in a black Victorian style suit. An unnecessary and most un-Holmesian touch that diminishes the effect of the more Holmesian response he makes when his friend Dr. Watson (David Atkins) suggests that this not the solution to his frustration when not challenged by an intricate mystery -- "Nonsense. Frustrate a Frenchman, he will drink himself to death; an Irishman, he will die of combustion; a Dane he will shoot himself; an American, he will shoot you, establish a million dollar trust for your relaties. Then he will die of an ulcer. A seven-per-cent solution of cocaine is my solution."

The actor who has lately been playing characters that went counter to his youthful appearance. This twenty something Holmes is actually a much better fit. That unfortunate opening scene notwithstanding, Spinella fits more comfortably into Holmes' shoes by the play's second and better part, especially when disguised as a Chinese man in an opium den and given a go at some the campier aspects of the play. Most of the comic relief, however, is provided J. Pauel Boehmer as the old Capt. Neville St. Claire and Gary Sloan as the green-suited, bumbling Inspector Lestrade. Sloan is particularly effective and whenever he's on stage (not often enough) the play and the audience are energized .

All the actors have apparently worked with dialect coach Elizabeth Smith though Mr. Spinella, perhaps wisely so, has eschewed ay serious attempt at a British accent. David Adkins is sincere and charming as the romantic young Dr. Watson. Joanna Going as the object of his affections is lovely enough to make his passion and eventual pain understandable. As the damsel in distress about her father's mysterious past she gives a convincing account of herself as a woman with a secret of her own.

Trivia fans might be interested to know that when Crucifer premiered on Broadway it ran for a respectable 228 performances. Glenn Close, still relatively uknown, played the original Irene St. Claire.

The New York theater season just ended included two revivals which like Crucifer of Blood dished up familiar melodrams with a twist of humor: Night Must Fall and Angel Street.

By Paul Giovanni
Directed by Christopher Renshaw
Starring: Stephen Spinella; with David Adkins, Joannna Going, J. Paul Boehmer, James Warwick, Alex Draper, Gary Sloan, Ronobir Lahiri, and Michael Hollick.
Sets: Rob Odorisio
Costumes: Lindsay W. Davis
Lights: Brian Nason
Composer: Scott Killian
Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth
Dialect Coach: Elizabeth Smith
Running time 2 hours with one intermission
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA (413/298-5536)
6/23/99-7/10/99 (opening 6/5)
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

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