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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini

Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini
Scott Leggett, Joe Fria(Photo credit: Jessica Sherman)
Like Coney Island's old Dreamland, writer-director Jaime Robledo doesn't stint on the amusements. The multiple set pieces thrill. For action, there's a a chase through a hall of mirrors and simulations of a careening roller coaster and a Hitchcockian carousel disaster. For disarming displays of characters' skill, there's a shuffleboard game with the ensemble playing the pucks and, at the top, a slo-mo rewind illustrating Sherlock Holmes' explanation of an apparent murder under some mistletoe.

The solution to that mini-mystery features inventive staging and, of course, an impressive display of Holmes' brilliance. But the cause of death turns out to be an accident. Robledo's prepping us to pay more attention to process than plot twists and turns. We need all the prep we can get. It turns out the central mystery involving the murders of several young women in London and Brooklyn's Coney Island is largely and disappointingly a MacGuffin.

Robledo ultimately focuses on a feat rarer than Holmes' power of deduction: coming to terms with death. For this, the Baker Street resident proves less helpful than the sometime spiritualist and brilliant escape artist, Harry Houdini. Bringing him into the mix is a terrific idea but Robledo develops his themes unsatisfactorily. In this world premiere, the plot is what comes to the most untimely end.

Getting to the abrupt finish is never less than fun, but it takes longer than it should. In every Robledo production I've seen, the pacing has been too deliberate. Perhaps slowness is the method chosen to maintain safety and quality control when understudies often go on and there many days off before the week's first performance.

In this instance, pauses between scenes may be a way to give Scott Leggett's Watson, on stage most of the time, some time to catch his breath. Whatever the reason, the momentum frequently stalls, particularly in the second act.

Nonetheless, the cast, as is usually the case at Sacred Fools, generates a great deal of good will. They work in contrasting styles. Joe Fria as Holmes (by way of Groucho Marx) and Graham Skipper as Watson's therapist, one Sigmund Freud, get mighty broad. And Robledo's writing turns way contemporary, yo, for the good doctor, which makes for easy laughs.

Donal Thoms-Cappello's Houdini convinces as a brash entertainer with potentially nefarious intentions. While suspended upside down and shackled in chains, he performs an impressive escape from a straightjacket. The women, Carrie Keranen as Watson's new love interest and understudy Anna Hanson as the spirit of his wife, have a fetchingly restrained approach. They also look fantastic in Linda Muggeridge's lovely costumes.

Leggett ties it all together. Befitting the character's restraint, he underplays but cannily meshes with all the other characters and the varied styles in which Robledo presents them.

All in all, it's a sumptuous experience. Ryan Johnson's original music and the other design elements provide a sense of grand scope despite the limits of space and budget. Robledo and his cast exhibit an outsized desire that wouldn't be out of place beside Houdini on the old boardwalk of Dreamland.

Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini
Written & Directed by Jaime Robledo

Cast: Scott Leggett as Dr. John Watson, Joe Fria as Sherlock Holmes, Donal Thoms-Cappello as Harry Houdini, Carrie Keranen as Violet Hunter, Eric Curtis Johnson as Mycroft Holmes, Anna Hanson as U/S Mary Morstan Watson, Graham Skipper as Sigmund Freud / Pike, Lisa Anne Nicolai, Mandi Moss, Brendan Broms, Aaron Mendelson, and Perry Daniel as The Stagehands
Composer - Ryan Johnson
Production Designer - Michael James Schneider
Lighting Designer - Matt Richter
Costume Designer - Linda Muggeridge
Stunt/Fight Choreographer - Andrew Amani
Movement Consultant - Natasha Norman
Stage Manager - Suze Campagna
Dialect Coach - Guy Picot
Running time – Two hours and twenty minutes including one intermission
Plays through August 17 at Sacred Fools Theatre 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., 90004 (310) 281-8337
Reviewed by Jon Magaril

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Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini
Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini   All in all, Sacred Fools offers a sumptuous experience .. . . Read More