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This fall and early winter, Delaware’s Resident Ensemble Players theater company (REP) again presents a series of its popular radio dramas. And it opens its season with a ripping good adaptation of what might be Sherlock Holmes’s most popular and most unusual case, A Scandal in Bohemia.
A new case
The action of this Conan Doyle short story—told by Holmes’s devoted, indefatigable chronicler and compatriot Dr. John Watson—doesn’t take place in Bohemia at all, but in London. Watson (Lee E. Ernst) decides on the spur of the moment to pay a visit to Holmes (Michael Gotch), whom he hasn’t seen lately, as “my marriage had drifted us away from each other.” The good doctor can tell by Holmes’s manic energy that he “is at work again,” and the famous detective quickly deduces that Watson has returned to medical practice. Questioned how he can possibly know, Holmes replies enigmatically, “Ah . . . you see, but you do not observe.” Observation is the hallmark of their adventures, and the two men fall into their previous roles as they set out on another case.
The tale opens with a tantalizing statement: “To Holmes, she is always the woman.” He is referring to Irene Adler (Kathleen Pirkl Tague), an American (almost always troublemakers in these Doyle stories) opera singer, a “prima donna, and adventuress.” Holmes has received a mysterious letter from someone who will visit him incognito that evening, and as this masked man arrives, Holmes quickly identifies him as the King of Bohemia (Mic Matarrese).
Now engaged to a Scandinavian princess with “strict principles,” the King is worried that his secret past will derail this impending marriage: Adler, his former lover, is threatening to ruin him by exposing a compromising photograph. After the King’s attempts to purchase or steal the picture are unsuccessful, he engages Holmes to recover the scandalous image and save his reputation.
There are disguises, intrigues, hansom cab chases, and mysterious comings and goings, as Holmes disguises himself and gains admittance to Adler’s house via a clever ruse in which Watson participates. Anything more would be a spoiler, and it would indeed be a crime to spoil the twists and turns Holmes and Conan Doyle create. Suffice it to say the case concludes with a twist for which this 1891 tale has become justly famous.
Just the right gusto
In this 45-minute drama, REP is in excellent form, digging into these Victorians with just the right amount of gusto. As in all the REP radio dramas, original music by Ryan Touhey and sound design by Eileen Smitheimer add immeasurably to creating the period atmosphere, especially important for audio theater. Interpreting these iconic tales can border on caricature—Holmes and Watson have become so famous and famously quirky—but here, director Pelinski gets just the right balance of action, melodrama, and characterization.
Himself a sort of model for the character of Dr. Watson, Conan Doyle set up a London medical practice (ophthalmology) in 1891, but it didn’t flourish. While waiting for those elusive patients he began to craft his famous detective tales. Ernst as Watson easily merges the doctor’s professionalism with his consistent amazement.
Sherlock Holmes is wildly beloved, and there have been well over 25,000 portrayals in film, TV, and publications. As the iconic detective, Gotch (actually an expert in the field of melodrama) hits the sweet spot. The literary weight of the character sits lightly here, and the actor skillfully navigates the shoals of dramatic canonization to create a surprisingly realistic portrayal.
Conan Doyle published two prior novellas, but the 1891 publication of “A Scandal in Bohemia” in The Strand ensured his success—no doubt aided by the public’s guess that the story was based on American singer Lillie Langtry’s affair with the Prince of Wales. Interestingly, the phrase most associated with Holmes, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” never appears in any of Doyle’s 56 short stories or four novels. And though the “consulting detective” was located at 221B Baker Street, a fictional building created by Conan Doyle, in 1990 that address was actually assigned to the nearby Sherlock Holmes Museum.
There’s more “Holmesiana” to be found in an online exhibition titled Books, Bohemians, and Baker Street: A Study in Sherlock. A trove of archival materials and fascinating images (including an Isaac Asimov limerick about this story), it was created by the University of Delaware library in conjunction with this REP broadcast. Happy sleuthing!
What, When, Where
A Scandal in Bohemia. Based on the short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, radio drama adapted by Denis Green and Anthony Boucher. Directed by Stephen Pelinski. Streaming for free through October 17, 2021. (302) 831-2201 or Rep.udel.edu.
A written transcript of A Scandal in Bohemia is available free on request.
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