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Sherlock spoof: ?Mask of Moriarty? a new take on an old detective

| Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011

Pittsburgh audiences have seen David Whalen play both of the title characters in "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" and Mr. Rochester in "Jane Eyre" and Mr. Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice."

Beginning Thursday, he will bring to the stage another superstar of 19th-century literature, when he appears as Sherlock Holmes in Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre's production of "The Mask of Moriarty" in the Charity Randall Theatre in Oakland.

Don't go searching for "The Mask of Moriarty" among the four novels and 56 short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle in the officially sanctioned volume of "The Complete Sherlock Holmes."

Irish playwright Hugh Leonard's comedy thriller departs from the official canon with a loopy tale that pits Holmes and his slightly dim sleuthing partner Dr. Watson against their most fearsome and brilliant nemesis, Dr. Moriarty.

But Leonard doesn't stop there. He embellishes the family-friendly caper with hunchbacks, sly references and homages to old movies, hints about Hitler's secret parentage and the identity of Jack the Ripper, all wrapped in a thick cloud of London fog.

"I think it will be fun for the audience. But for the actors it's a tricky piece. It's a spoof but you have to build it the right way. ... You need to build it so the jokes come from the characters," Whalen says. "I love that it begins like a roller coaster. I love the thrill of being ratcheted up the hill and then down."

"The Mask of Moriarty" begins with a murder most foul that takes place on London's Waterloo Bridge.

When Alice, the maid to American heiress Gwen, is murdered and the heiress' recently discovered half-brother is accused of the crime, Gwen enlists Holmes and Watson to unravel the mystery. It doesn't take long for the trail of clues, red herrings and gags leads the sleuths to master criminal Moriarty.

"The play is very smart because it deals with the two people closest to Holmes -- Watson and Moriarty -- and that (Holmes and Moriarty) are two heavyweights trying to outdo each other -- the world's most brilliant criminal and the world's most brilliant detective."

Whalen has done a lot of reading and thinking about Holmes, and has watched several of the more iconic of the Sherlock Holmes movies.

"What Doyle wrote is layers to the guy. We as audience members ... begin to peel back the layers and become a detective on him," Whalen says.

He loves the widely different interpretations that Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and Robert Downey Jr. have brought to Holmes.

"They're all different. It shows you he's a great character," Whalen says.

But he has no intention of copying what any of those predecessors have done. "You can't do a carbon copy of Holmes. That's what makes him great."

Asked to describe Holmes and what motivates him, Whalen's fondness for the character is clear.

"It's not that he doesn't have an ego. It's through the roof. But he is smarter than everybody else. It's not an innate sense of intelligence. He has worked hard at this," he says. "I like that he lets the huzzahs go to the police. ... I love the fact that Watson is something Holmes needs to let his ideas bounce off. I like that about the relationship: that it's real and deep."

Asked whether he thinks Holmes possesses any negative traits, Whalen thinks for a minute, and then adds: "He smokes too much."

Whalen thinks it's a show that will be enjoyed by diehard fans of Holmes and Doyle and people who only have a passing acquaintance with the world's most-famous detective.

"You don't have to be a Holmesian to get this. It will entertain everybody. The more you invest in it, the more you will get out of it. It doesn't pander," he says. "You can bring the family to this. ... There's a fun to it and an enjoyment and the excitement of will the good guy win. At times, you don't think so."

An enduring character

It's been 81 years since Arthur Conan Doyle died, and 83 years since the publication of "The Complete Sherlock Holmes Short Stories."

But the game still is afoot. Holmes, Watson and their archenemy Moriarty continually are reborn and re-invented in ever-new tales in a variety of media.

The following are some of recent and upcoming reincarnations.

• "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," release date Dec. 16. This film sequel to the 2009 movie "Sherlock Holmes" reunites Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Assisted by Sim (Naomi Rapace), a gypsy with a past, they travel across Europe in an attempt to foil Professor Moriarty's (Jared Harris) plot and prevent the collapse of Western civilization.

• "The House of Silk" by Anthony Horowitz (Mulholland Books, $27.99), release date Nov. 1. This brand new adventure of the famed detective is the first that the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate has sanctioned. Its author already has had literary success with his series of Alex Rider books for children and as the writer of the television series "Foyle's War." He also has written episodes of popular TV crime shows that include "Poirot," "Murder in Mind" and "Midsomer Murders."

• "Sherlock," season 2 scheduled for PBS in May 2012. Those who followed the 21st-century adventures of Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman's Dr. John Watson will be happy to learn they are slated to return to Masterpiece Mystery for three more episodes in May. The new episodes will cover "The Scandal in Belgravia," "The Hounds of Baskerville" and "The Reichenbach Fall." Season 1 is available on DVD.

Why we like him

Sherlock Holmes fans have been following the detective's career for almost 125 years.

For purists, there is only one Holmes -- the one portrayed by Arthur Conan Doyle in his original stories. Others favor film or television versions.

Still others delve into the eclectic range of re-inventions of Holmes, such as Larry Millet's mysteries that cover Holmes' "lost years" solving crimes in Minnesota or Michael Kurland's novels that turn the tables, portraying Moriarty as a brilliant but innocent scientist pursued by an obsessive Holmes who believes Moriarty is an archvillain.

Some local fans offer their takes on why they like Holmes or which Holmes they prefer.

• "Part of the appeal is familiarity. There's hardly any other classic detective you can pull out that's immediately recognizable to people. Fifty percent might recognize Hercule Poirot; 80 percent would recognize Holmes, " says Richard Goldman, co-owner of Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakland.

• "I like the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. ... I don't enjoy it when they change the endings," says Linda Conway of Bethel Park, who is also a fan of the Victorian era and collects antiques of the period.

• "I enjoy the mystery, and the way he works through it till he gets it," says Tom Pitner of Washington, Pa. However, he confesses: "Sometimes, I almost don't like the character. The way Jeremy Brett plays him, he's so severe. Ronald Coleman plays him with a softer edge. You can kind of warm up to him better."

• "It's the character. He's so logical. You think, I wish I could be that way," says Jim Zunic of Natrona Heights. "Conan Doyle was a particularly colorful writer. ... (The books) are really more interesting for their atmosphere -- London fog, the moors, the London shops. ... Even good writers today do it well, but not as good as Doyle did."

• "I like the ones that give the stories a vivid twist," says Kathleen Oravec of Squirrel Hill. "I like that he's a man who has weaknesses, has faults, but is able to fight through them. ... His sureness presents a weakness and others around him (Watson, Detective LeStrade, his housekeeper Mrs.Hudson) support him. Without them you get the feeling he would have struggled -- not that he would admit it."

• "That series with the nice young man (Benedict Cumberbatch's "Sherlock" on PBS) I liked that very much," says Alison Wilson of Edgewood. She was less impressed by the movie that starred Robert Downey Jr. "I wasn't nuts abut the movie. Everything was so dirty, grungy, yucky and it was pretty violent. It's not that I object. ... but just because it's Sherlock Holmes doesn't mean you have to love it."

• "I suspect his attraction to the reading public is not just his capacity for observation and deduction, but also his loyalty, decency and above all his overwhelming conceit," says Alan Stanford, who is directing "The Mask of Moriarty" for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre. "There is a naive charm in the almost child-like arrogance he displays. His simple delight in his little victories over his friend Watson are those of a schoolboy who always gets the answers right, and whose best friend is the class duffer."

Additional Information:

'The Mask of Moriarty'

Produced by: Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre

When: Thursday-Dec. 17 at 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and Dec. 17 and 7 p.m. Dec. 13

Admission: $40-$50; $40-$44 for seniors; and $20 for those younger than 25 with ID

Where: Charity Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland

Details: 412-394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org

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