Monday, April 13, 2009

Wisconsin Hybrid Theatre's Sherlock Holmes

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I’d arrived at the Alchemist Theatre  on Sunday afternoon for what is quickly beginning to look like my first of 7 shows in 8 days. The show running for two performances is Wisconsin Hybrid Theatre’s Sherlock Holmes.

Picking-up a beer from the bar, I waited around with the rest of a sellout crowd at the Alchemist. Just before the house opened, Actors in costume and character playing old-time radio actors started milling about the bar. With no program, I had no idea who was who, but recognized a couple of people from previous shows elsewhere. A musician sat next to me, introduced himself as, “Lee” and proceeded to start playing a violin.

Randall Anderson as Jack Farwell, I believe . . .

The house opened and audience members slowly spilled into the theatre seats . . . mixed with actors in character as actors. The show was introduced by Randall Anderson as Jack Farwell—a radio actor set to introduce the show and play a few different roles. I’d talked to Anderson as Farwell a couple of times briefly and he was able to talk quite freely without breaking character. He’s a natural for this sort of thing—a perfect fit. Each of the characters proceeded to tell a warm-up joke which led to the inevitable “On Air” sign lighting-up and the beginning of what turned out to be a really enjoyable hour of light comedy.  

The fictitious radio station in question is “Radio WHT,” which seems caught somewhere in the golden age of radio when everything was still performed live—somewhere in the ‘40’s or ‘50’s. The overall sound of the show feels very specific to that era complete with sound effects guy Chris Knapp and melodramatic music by the aforementioned Lee Wentworth. Wentworth is spot-on with what sounds like a very authentic violin and accordion sound punctuating things for just the right tension. It’s fascinating to watch him go back and forth between instruments. At least once in the performance, he played violin while wearing the accordion . . . kind of a strange sight for someone still used to seeing the violin performed by classical musicians in the symphony.

The script plays dual-layered comedy—on one level serving as a pretty shrewd and solid Sherlock Holmes satire and—on a completely different level serving as a workplace comedy between a group of working actors with their own personalities. The anxious and unctuous Lorilyn Layton longs for Ernie Howell—the guy playing Watson who is scripted to fall for a character played by Mary Loomis (an actress who is played by Rachel Ravenlillysophia—the other actor I’d recognized from previous work.) Ira Hampton performed at the center of it all in character as Holmes—who was in the midst of investigating a crime involving a pygmy and a one-legged man.

The old timey staged live radio comedy thing has been done before elsewhere, so this is nothing new, but WHT does such a good job with it. It’s a really enjoyable Sunday afternoon. It’s novel enough to be fun once a month and with things set-up the way they are at the Alchemist, it’s a very cool atmosphere to see a show like this in. The cast proceeded to the bar after the show (probably still in character as mid-century radio actors.) It would’ve been fun to stick around, but my wife and I had company coming over for dinner and I wanted to get this written before they came . . .

Wisconsin Hybrid Theatre’s Sherlock Holmes will be performed for its second and final time on Sunday, April 19th at 3pm. Tickets are $9.99. As of this writing, the show is half sold-out. In May, WHT returns to the Alchemist with its take on The Wizard Of Oz.

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