A game afoot, anew
The Majestic checks in with Baker Street's most famous tenant.
COURTESY OF THE MAJESTIC THEATRE
B Y C O R Y F R Y E
When Ryan McWayne watched Martha Benson's audition, he knew he’d found his Sherlock Holmes.
“Martha brought a wonderful combination of intelligence, charm, wit, and more,” he said. “Add the fact that she is a phenomenal actress, and I knew she’d be perfect. Which she is.”
Even on paper, Benson seems eminently qualified. The Adelphi University graduate boasts impressive credentials, with numerous Adelphi, Inwood Shakespeare Festival, and Oregon Contemporary Theatre credits to her name. She’s appeared on New York stages (“The Tempest”; “Romeo and Juliet,” in which she essayed Romeo in her own production; and “Much Ado About Nothing,” among others). In addition, she explored her craft in courses at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and the British American Dramatic Academy. Benson also speaks French and is well-versed in European classic novels. Her resume may indeed rival or surpass even Holmes’.
The legendary detective matches considerable and potentially deadly wits with the formidable Professor Moriarty — an adversary Holmes could never quite shake, even after a century-plus — in this Majesticpiece Theatre presentation, which opens live (i.e., no edited recordings for multiple playbacks) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20. For more information, visit https://bit.ly/2OqZtKu.
“When audition information was sent out, I indicated I was open to any gender, any race, any ethnicity, any age, for all roles [the audition form bears this out],” McWayne said. “I’m searching for the best person for each role.”
A far cry from the original stage Holmes, scripted with one specific person in mind. English author/physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had introduced the character in 1887’s A Study in Scarlet and built him into one of mystery literature’s most enduring archetypes over four novels and 56 short stories. He became so beloved that naturally he ventured onstage, through the personage of playwright/performer William Gillette in the late 19th century. Gillette developed his own four-act drama, Sherlock Holmes, which premiered in 1899 New York with himself, of course, in the title role. His is the Holmes we recognize most: deerstalker cap, long, curved pipe.
This is decidely not that Sherlock Holmes. Majestic Theatre program assistant Rachel Kohler has adapted the Gillette play for digital footlights, trimming it to under two hours and changing the script where necessary. McWayne is protectively mum on further alterations. “As to how our Sherlock Holmes is different — well, tune into the show and find out,” he said.
Kohler, however, was somewhat more willing to elaborate.
“Adapting old plays is one of my most beloved hobbies,” she said, “so I was glad to be asked to adapt this one. ... [I]t's a really rewarding challenge cutting them down, tweaking things here and there, and finding new ways to narrate action. The narration is particularly fun in Sherlock — while we do have [Dr. John H.] Watson introducing scenes (a natural choice, given the narrative style of the books), internal action is narrated through silent film-style expository intertitle cards. It fits nicely with the generally melodramatic flavor of the text.”
Kohler also enjoyed tweaking Gillette’s legendary creation — touching the seemingly untouchable, nevertheless an old theater tradition — and reinterpreting it through a contemporary lens, keeping its initial form intact while adding further depth.
“I have always been fascinated by, admiring of, and slightly mortified by the old actor-managers of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, as the egos involved were clearly enormous,” she said, “but the art itself was very exciting. I generally do Shakespeare/early modern theatre adaptations, and so many of my encounters with these long-vanished giants of the theatrical world have been through their often extremely liberal Shakespeare adaptations, in which they've cheerfully and unrepentantly rewritten large swaths of the plays. It's in some ways inspired me to do the same (although I don't like appearing in my own adaptation or directing work; it feels gauche). Gillette’s adaptation and the performance that went with it were so iconic that they did much to cement what we think of as Sherlock Holmes ... but it was not a play with which I was at all familiar until Ryan asked if there were any old Sherlock Holmes plays, and I went looking for one.”
McWayne had long been enamored of the storied detective. “Sherlock Holmes was a favorite character of my dad’s, and so he became a favorite of mine growing up,” he said. “When asked to direct, I went searching for a show to do and had a vague memory of a Holmes play. I was excited when I found it.”
Kohler was just as excited by the possibilities, especially in collaboration with a director receptive to upturning theatrical norms for a production’s benefit, to send it in exhilarating directions.
“My favorite thing to do with old plays is to challenge audience expectations that have set by hundreds of years of performance precedent, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to play with gender spectrum in performance,” Kohler said. “The profession of acting has been a largely straight, white, cisgender male one for thousands of years in the Western world, so staking out more diverse and more queer spaces within the borders of popular art is enormously satisfying to me. While I didn't make any of the casting choices, I told Ryan I'd be happy to change pronouns and gendered language within the script based on casting and actor requests, and he loved the idea.
“The fact that he cast a nonmale Sherlock Holmes in an explicitly queer romance fills me with joy. Theater has been playing with gender as a construct since its genesis, and I love carrying that work forward into the 21st century. Martha does a fantastic job taking this role, a role burdened with 120 years of expectations and creating her own space within it. She's quintessentially Sherlock Holmes, and yet she's also something completely different, because a nonmale body in such a male space as this can't help but make a statement.”
That said, Holmes isn’t Holmes without a most worthy rival: the ruthless Professor Moriarty, the so-called “Napoleon of crime,” one of the few malevolent masterminds to have written a much-admired book of mathematics (The Dynamics of an Asteroid). Despite their antagonism, heroine and opponent mutually admire each other’s intelligence. Into this historic devil-flesh slips Andrew Laniohan (Majesticpiece Theatre’s Treasure Island, Umpqua Community College’s (proof)), who steers the professor with equal measures of fury and cunning.
“Andrew is a spectacular actor,” McWayne said. “Every role I’ve seen him take on he’s impressed me greatly. With Moriarty, he brings a wonderful mix of genius and madness to the role. Both shine in his eyes and his characterization.”
Rounding out the cast are Jason Caffarella as the detective’s faithful partner, Dr. Watson; Ariel Hicks as Alice Faulkner, Holmes’ love interest (a Gillette addition to the mythology; he’d famously asked Doyle's permission to create her, to which the author riposted, “You may marry or murder or do what you like with [Holmes].”); Carolyn Poutasse as Inspector Forman (another role originally written for a male); Andrew Freborg as James Larabee; Noise contributor Jennifer Moody in the dual role of Therese and Mrs. Smeedley; Ralph Turley as Sidney Prince; Brandon Urey as Alfred Bassick; Kristin Wirtz as Billy; Nancy Homan as Leary and Countess Von Stahlburg; Pat Purdue as “Lightfoot” McTague and John Parsons; and Karlissa Jones as Jim Craigin and Sir Edward Leighton; with Rose Taylor and Alex Asher as backup actors.
As has become standard for theatrical production, Sherlock Holmes was prepared as a Zoom affair, with stage manager Amanda Vander Hyde’s technical wizardry evoking Victorian England when necessary. Cast members provide their own costumes (“always impressive for what our actors have in their closets,” McWayne said). and shaped their own English — or, in Moody’s case, French — patois.
“I know some of our cast sought assistance from fellow thespians they know for accent work,” McWayne said. “However, most everyone brought accent talents they already had in their ‘actor bag.’ We did play around a little with accents and where we decided to have their characters from. However, in the end, having an accent was not necessary, just a fun bonus if our talent were able to do it.”
Nevertheless, this Sherlock Holmes appears destined to be an historic highlight of a pandemic-plagued season, changes and all. “I think people enjoy a mystery and love how Holmes is able to see every detail and outthink everyone in the room,” McWayne says of the character’s enduring appeal, which not even the coronavirus or our collective cynicism could ever hope to damage. The play promises an evening packed with, in the director’s words, “mystery, melodrama, humor, romance, and more!” (Spoken like a promoter born.)
According to Kohler, even the play’s original author might enjoy the magic of the Majestic’s theatrical update.
“I don't know if Gillette would approve,” she said, “but I think he'd admire the chutzpah.”
BECOMING SHERLOCK HOLMES
a conversation with martha benson
What compelled you to audition for Sherlock Holmes and, specifically, the title character?
I’ve been doing plays with the Majestic Theatre company since the pandemic started. The pandemic shutdown has been so soul-crushing in a lot of ways. Playing with the folks at the Majestic Theatre has been such a joy, and when I saw audition notices for Sherlock Holmes, I instantly thought, “What a fun character to play, Sherlock.” It’s just so glamorous, so brilliant and adventurous. I’m drawn to characters like that. And as a woman, not a lot of parts — especially in classical pieces — are that meaty, so I’m often bored. The Majestic people have been so inclusive, I got the sense that they’d say, “Yeah! Do it! Make the bold choice.” I bet they’d take me seriously if I auditioned for Sherlock. I bet I would stand a chance. So I went for it.
It sounds as if [director] Ryan McWayne left that purposely open in the auditions.
Yes, he did. That was very, very clear for all the characters. He was looking for whoever brought the most to the part.
Were you a fan of the character beforehand?
I’m not familiar with the classic Sherlock Holmes, aside from a general awareness of his legacy. I loved the Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman series — I adore it. Then, of course, The Great Mouse Detective [Walt Disney Pictures, 1986]. (laughs) But that’s truly the extent of my knowledge.
The play’s author, William Gillette, wrote Sherlock Holmes as a vehicle for himself. Could you talk about developing your vision for the character?
Rachel [Kohler, who adapted the play] and I discussed the kind of classic cis male legacy that man created with Sherlock Holmes. My first questions in approaching this role were “What do I keep, and what do I discard? What do I honor, and what do I openly veer away from?” There are rules with the [Sir Arthur Conan] Doyle estate as to how Holmes is supposed to be portrayed. It’s wild. I think the people behind the Netflix film, Enola Holmes, were sued because their Sherlock showed too much emotion and was also too kind toward a member of the same sex. I thought, “Whoa! There is a legacy when it comes to this part. How can I make this my own while finding a balance to honor the original story?”
Did you have any creative input into the adaptation?
Yes. I spoke with Rachel, who is brilliant at what she does, about pronoun-switching and how characters would address Sherlock, depending on how they feel about her or how much they respect her. We went through the script and really examined each character as to whether they would respect a woman of her position trying to do what she does in her time. Would they demean her by calling her “miss,” or would they call her what she wants to be called, which is “Sherlock” or “Madam Holmes”?
I’ve found that when pronouns are used within period pieces, sometimes there isn’t a female equivalent of equal status. Our language kind-of demeans anything that’s perceived as feminine, and that can be really tricky. So, we had to get really creative and thoughtful about how Holmes was addressed in this play.
Who and what were your inspirations for this embodiment of Holmes?
I did take a lot of inspiration from Enola Holmes — just her spirit and her fearlessness to follow her heart in the face of what society is telling her not to do. I took inspiration, the fun, from the Disney movie (laughs) and imitated some of the speaking rhythms. I was also inspired by Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in getting really specific on why he’s perceived as aloof and what emotional or psychological reasons he may play detached from the rest of the world.
How did you find her accent?
(laughs) Well, if he heard me, my BFA accent teacher would be so mad. I have thrown together some sort of (laughs) British RP [Received Pronunciation] accent. There are so many benefits to Zoom, nut also we don’t have the time you would normally have on an accent play. In a normal play, I probably would have gone through the entire script and circled the vowels. We don’t have time to do that in Zoom. Plus, it’s more about joy, fun, and community.
So, the answer is: I’m kind-of imitating speakers from The Crown (laughs), and, also, whenever I go for an elevated British, I always have Julie Andrews’ voice in the back of my head. Aside from that, I do my best. (laughs)
Holmes and Moriarity rank as two of literature’s greatest adversaries. How did you and Andrew Laniohan work on that dynamic when you couldn’t physically be in the same room?
Andrew is spectacular. He makes it so easy to play off of him. Andrew and I have acted opposite each other before in other Zoom plays. We played romantic interests in Much Ado About Nothing , and that was so much fun. So I already knew him and I knew his energy on Zoom, and that really helped us create and play off each other.
It’s tricky with Zoom. You can’t sense your stage partner’s presence. You only are relying on what you can see and also what you can hear in your earbuds. We take a few rehearsals. One rehearsal I’ll focus on looking at him. Another rehearsal I’ll focus on listening to what he’s giving me. It’s just great. He’s brilliant. He’s so good at working the angles of the camera. It’s just a blast. Usually, I followed his lead. (laughs)
You touched on this earlier, but what are some of the challenges/benefits of a Zoom production from an actor’s perspective?
One of the benefits is this unparalleled sense of community in a time where we don’t have community anymore. Getting to see these people, to be playful and to watch them pull out all these crazy costumes from their closets and go full-out on these wacky characters and have so much fun. brings me so much joy and laughter. I’m too busy to be doing a play right now, but I knew I had to work with these people again.
As for cons, the Zoom format is new. It’s challenging. I think your eye is drawn to so many places. You have to keep your eye on the script. You also have to keep your eyes near the camera. You have to make sure you’re in the right position for the camera to capture you, and you’re also keeping track of the piles of props surrounding your desk. A lot of technical stuff can take you out of the moment. But we make it work and we have fun doing it.
What other Majestic productions have you done?
When did you become a performer?
I had never been onstage until my freshman year of high school [South Eugene] — not due to lack of trying. I auditioned every year in middle school for the school play and was so bad I never got in. Casts of 60-70 kids, mind you, and I was one of the few who couldn’t get in. (laughs) So I had given up on theater. My freshman year I accidentally got placed in a drama class. I signed up for archery; they put me in drama. (laughs) They wouldn’t take me out.
But quickly, I loved it. I loved the people. I loved the storytelling. I didn’t feel as if I were particularly talented, but I did know that I knew how to work hard. I knew how to get better. I was really fixated on the challenge of it and the thrill. I knew freshman year that this was my north star. This was what I was doing for the rest of my life.
How did It gel for you?
It was in the middle of that freshman year. I started as arguably one of the worst in the class. So painfully and horribly shy. Then I was assigned this scene from [Ivan Turgenev’s] A Month in the Country. I was completely ill-cast for it, or so I thought. It was a scene with a diabolical stepmother, who is manipulating her stepdaughter because she’s in love with her stepdaughter’s boyfriend. I had to play the stepmother. And I had a wonderful, wonderful partner.
We went up and did the scene, and after we stopped, there was silence in the room. I remember my TA came up to me and said, “Martha, where did that come from? You were so good!” I was shocked. What? “You were evil! That was amazing!” Of course, I was so flattered and so excited by this success that I said, “Oh, I can do it!” I just loved the transformation and the sneak attack of it, surprising all my classmates. I’ve got to do that again. And again and again and again.
How have you contended with the pandemic?
As a performer, I value the safety and health of my family and the community around me so much. I am waiting until this pandemic is over before I would consider doing in-person theater or film again.
It has been a time to reflect in some profound ways. At the beginning of the pandemic, I had been accepted to a master’s program up in Washington, D.C., to get my MFA in classical acting and Shakespeare. I sat in my New York apartment for two months in isolation with my cat (laughs) and I realized that a better use of my skill set would actually be to get a different kind of MFA. After more thinking, my path eventually led me to the University of Oregon and getting a degree in nonprofit management, which is quite a switch, I know (laughs). But the thinking behind that is that I’m also a director and producer. I wanted to fill in some of the gaps in my toolbox that surround the business side of theater, the finances and the grant-writing.
Finally, what can audiences expect from Sherlock Holmes?
A lot of fun, romance, and adventure. I genuinely mean this when I say this, but this cast and team have gone all-out. We are having so much fun with this show. If you were going to see any Majestic show, I would see this one.