If theater history is any indication, the latter part of the 19th century was rife with actors who made their careers through elaborating a single role. For example, James O’Neill, father of the playwright Eugene O’Neill, was known throughout Europe and North America as the Count of Monte Cristo, a role he reprised thousands of times throughout the course of several decades. Although he is less well-known than James O’Neill outside the theater, William Gillette, the actor who created our modern image of Sherlock Holmes, was perhaps more influential. It was his notion of what audiences needed to see that gave us such iconic markers of the detective’s persona as the meerschaum pipe and the deerstalker cap.
In Postmortem, the antic comedy/thriller currently playing at Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre, playwright Ken Ludwig has taken what we know about the illustrious and eccentric Gillette (e.g., he liked disguises and séances, he lived in a castle in Connecticut) and run with it, creating Sherlockian entertainment that’s equal parts murder mystery and show-biz satire. The characters may be somewhat fake, and the gunshots wholly so, but the laughs and shocks are real, and they keep coming all the way to the end of this fast, exciting ride.
David Couch has made almost as much of a career out of portraying Sherlock Holmes as Gillette did, so he makes a natural choice for the lead. Around him, director Miller James has assembled a stellar cast, a terrific set (with William York Hyde), and great costumes. Cybele Foraker and Gitte help anchor the production with strong work in the supporting roles of Marion Barrett and Lilly Warner, respectively, and York Hyde gets some of the evening’s biggest laughs with his outstanding timing and delivery as Leo Barrett.
These excellent performances notwithstanding, it is on the trio of younger cast members that much of the responsibility for the evening’s success falls. As the supremely arrogant and insensitive actor Bobby Carlyle, Mak Manson makes an auspicious Circle Bar B debut, putting in just the right amount of camp to make his role memorable. As the stage ingénue May Dison, Rachelle Clark has a lot to do; it seems as if when she is not delivering an important speech, she’s holding one of the other characters at gunpoint, and she’s delightful in both modes. Finally, there’s Emily Parsons as the deliciously demented Louise Parradine. Her performance as the medium in the séance sequence had the audience riveted, even as they nearly jumped out of their seats.
Overall, the quality of this particular Circle Bar B production is high, and it looks to be rising even higher as the cast gets used to the space and the show. An acquaintance with the conventions of old-fashioned stage mysteries adds to the flavor of the thing, but it certainly isn’t necessary to understand what’s going on. In fact, many of those in the audience on Saturday were clearly delighted with seeing such familiar effects as the offstage gunshot and the mystery blackout as if for the first time. Whether it is your first time or, like William Gillette and his beloved Sherlock, your thousandth, this is a date with a drama that’s worth keeping.