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Of the many criticisms lobbied against the Walnut Street Theatre, the one that seems like it would be the easiest to fix is the theater’s lack of representation of non-white artists. A now-familiar image depicting the directors of the 49 mainstage productions at the Walnut between 2010–2020 is a sea of white faces, most of which are male—not to mention the lack of diversity among the company's actors and playwrights. Rather than acknowledge this problem and attempt remedy, as some other local theater companies have done, the Walnut digs its heels in even deeper with Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Speckled Band.
A Walnut auteur
To be fair, the Walnut’s current season was set before Philadelphia theater artists took to the streets in the summer of 2021, calling for the ouster of managing director Mark Sylvester and company founder and producing artistic director Bernard Havard. We were going to get famous fictional white man Sherlock Holmes no matter what.
But criticisms of the Walnut go back further than last year, and instead of taking time during the pandemic’s “Great Pause” to address any of them, Havard commissioned Bill Van Horn, who also directs and costars, to write Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Speckled Band, based on the 1910 play Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote after his own short story. Even Sherlock Holmes (played here by Ian Merrill Peakes) knew he needed Watson to help him do his job. Perhaps Van Horn needed not to play Watson, as he also does here, but to find a Watson of his own.
Dated new work
Don’t get me wrong: I love Sherlock Holmes. But some of those books and stories contain questionable descriptions of their non-white characters, plus a healthy amount of praise for British colonialism.
Given that this is a newly adapted work, it would have been easy enough to make changes that would keep the story principally the same, but sidestep the stereotypes. Instead, authentic to Doyle’s original, we have several lines that reference India in offensive ways, as well as the character of Ali (Justin Lujan), whose first entrance to the play is heralded by a gong.
There are a few moments in the show, played for laughs, in which Ali surprises one of the other characters because an element of his biography did not happen in India. But on the night I attended, I sensed the audience was laughing not because Ali had broken a stereotype, but because they sympathized with the character who made the stereotyped assumption.
Jokes like these, which (sometimes literally) wink at the audience, abound in The Speckled Band. It becomes clear within its first few minutes that the play is meant to be a farce, rather than a straightforward adaptation of the source material, so the laugh lines’ pace is expected. But for the most part, the jokes feel stale and unoriginal, like they could have been written into many other plays that came before. The audience around me ate them up, but I think that says a lot more about the Walnut’s audience than it does about whether the play itself is any good.
Don’t blame the actors
With the exception of Van Horn—who managed to be the weakest actor in the company, accent flickering on and off like an old fluorescent lightbulb, despite having written, directed, and cast himself in the play—I don’t fault the actors for the dullness of The Speckled Band, or Brian Froonjian's fantastic set.
Every performer in the cast was tasked with playing multiple characters, frequently having to change costumes in a manner of seconds and reenter as someone else. Their transitions were all smooth, and even though the jokes were generally unfunny, the actors’ comedic timing was spot-on. Karen Peakes and Mary Martello deliver the most memorable performances in the show; Dan Hodge really sells the hapless lover; Ian Merrill Peakes’s Holmes is faithful to the famous detective’s eccentricities; and outside of the Ali character, Lujan manages to make scene stealers out of small parts. It is not their fault they didn’t have much to work with.
That fault lies squarely on the Walnut's, and specifically Havard’s, shoulders. In commissioning Van Horn to create this play, he proves just how stuck in its ways the Walnut truly is.
What, When, Where
Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Speckled Band. Written and directed by Bill Van Horn, based on the play The Speckled Band and the short story of the same name, both by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. $25-$77. Through March 27, 2022, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.
Walnut Street Theatre no longer requires proof of Covid-19 vaccination or masking.
Walnut Street Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Contact the box office to arrange for wheelchair-friendly seating. There will be an open captioned performance of Sherlock Holmes on Sunday, March 13, 2022, at 7pm.
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