The play consists of seven actors playing some 26 different characters, as well as “others” too insignificant to identify specifically. And so the stage was a chaos of people coming and going, often dressed in costumes very different from the ones in which they had previously appeared, and delivering their crucial commentary in a variety of nearly impenetrable British accents.
And because the play is conducted in almost total darkness, the notes I attempted to take consisted of half a dozen lines scribbled on top of each other and totally undecipherable. And so I had to go to the source to figure out what was going on.
The play, “Mysterious Circumstances”, written by Michael Mitnick, and now having its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse is based on an article that appeared in the New Yorker issue of December 13, 2004. That article, titled “Mysterious Circumstances: The Strange Death of a Sherlock Holmes Fanatic” was written by David Grann.
David Grann is a staff writer for the New Yorker, an outstanding journalist, and the bestselling author of one of my all-time favorite books: “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon”. And so, with little else to go on, I went to Wikipedia and found Grann’s original New Yorker article, which told the story of Richard Lancelyn Green, the man who spent his entire life obsessively researching and writing the definitive bibliography and biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and, by extension, Conan Doyle’s immortal creation, Sherlock Holmes.
Fortunately, Grann’s article was long and bursting with details, even naming the friends and colleagues that Green worked with, as well as providing some Holmes aphorisms: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact” and Holmes describing himself to Watson as “a brain”, adding, “the rest of me is a mere appendix.”
It turns out that Green wasn’t the only Holmes fanatic in Britain. Bunches of fans grouped themselves in worshipful clubs in other parts of the world as well as Britain, and many were convinced that their hero was real! In fact, many mourned his death by wearing black armbands when Conan Doyle killed him off in 1893.
Green was steadfast in his commitment to collect every scrap of paper or piece of memorabilia that pertained to Holmes or Conan Doyle and soon became a fast friend of Dame Jean Conan Doyle, Conan Doyle’s daughter, who possessed a cache of private letters and documents that were said to be worth a large fortune. She had intended to donate them to the British Library, but after her death that intention was obstructed by Conan Doyle’s sons and others and the treasured papers were put up for auction.
Green, who attempted to prevent the auction, was suddenly and mysteriously murdered thereafter, much to the astonishment of his peers. Although he had provided a number of clues pointing to the purported killer, many believed that the death was a carefully constructed suicide, aimed to implicate one of his rivals. For one thing, he had been garroted with a shoelace, which is nearly impossible to do to oneself. Further, he had not left a suicide note, which was uncharacteristic of a man who made notes about everything. So now, more than 15 years later, the death is still listed as “unsolved.”
While “Mysterious Circumstances” may be a little hard to keep up with, it is exceptionally well done, thanks to the intense direction of Matt Shakman and the impeccable work of the extensive cast. Most especially that of Alan Tudyk, who plays both Richard Lancelyn Green and Sherlock Holmes, and Austin Durant who excels as Conan Doyle. And also Ramiz Monsef, who gets many laughs as a kibitzing Watson.
The most spectacular elements in this play, however, are the set design of Brett J. Banakis, the lighting design of Elizabeth Barker, the projection design of Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson, and the illusion designs of Francis Menotti and David Kwong. The images and lights that flash across the stage, the panels that slide open and closed to reveal, among other things, scenes of outside environments, including a stunning rainstorm, and the cacophony of sounds that overwhelm the auditorium are, all by themselves, well worth the price of admission.
So go! You’ll be transfixed.
“Mysterious Circumstances” will run Tuesdays through Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. through July 14, at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets, call 310-208-5454 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.org.