Of all the fictional characters in English literature, Sherlock Holmes seems the most real.
Holmes has spawned plays, movies and sequels – inspiring actors such as Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch.
But the first American performer to tackle the role was William Gillette, playing it more than 1,300 times and adding such touches as the deerstalker cap and curved pipe now integral to people’s perceptions.
He also wrote his own version, drawing on elements from several of the original stories.
Kensington Arts Theatre’s (KAT) next production draws in turn on elements of Gillette’s play and two stories by Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Great Adventure,” said Stephen Johnson, the “Sherlockian” who portrays the King of Bohemia.
“I fell in love with Sherlock Holmes and the Victorian world he inhabits, at an early age,” Johnson said. “My mother is British, and I grew up hearing her stories of London. For me, London, and I suppose by extension, Holmes and [his sidekick] Dr. Watson were all part of the atmosphere Conan Doyle created.”
In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the King has a small if pivotal role. Not so in the KAT play.
“He’s so pompous and boisterous that it would be easy to just play him as a clown,” Johnson said. “In the original Conan Doyle story, he’s dead-serious and Teutonic, and, like anyone who’s full of himself, is unintentionally ridiculous. In the play, he’s written as an explicitly humorous character.”
English-born Peter Harrold, who holds the title role, seeks British plays to audition for because of a preference for hearing the real thing instead of Americans putting on British accents.
This is his first production at KAT, but he has performed with the British Players, which shares a stage with KAT.
“There have been many TV productions of Sherlock Holmes, but there are hardly ever theater productions, so this was too good to miss,” Harrold said.
Of course, a major challenge in portraying the brilliant but acerbic Holmes is, in Harrold’s words, “avoiding impersonating one of the great actors who has done this before. I studiously avoided watching any of these performances since being cast. Most people have an idea of what they think Sherlock Holmes should look like and behave.”
In addition, he said, Sherlock’s character is “very far” from his own, “so it’s a real stretch.”
Felicity Ann Brown, in her directorial debut at KAT, was a mystery fan as a child, enamored by Nancy Drew, among other detectives. But, she admitted, her exposure to the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories and their adaptations was “minimal.”
When Gillette wrote his version, he took liberties with the characters and invented a romance for Holmes, whereas the original “A Scandal in Bohemi” hints at an attraction for opera singer Irene Adler that doesn’t develop.
“In modern terms, his play comes closer to fan fiction than to an adaptation,” Brown said.
The version by Steven Dietz that KAT is using tries to bring back more of Conan Doyle’s original story, “toning down the romance but keeping the spark alive,”she added.
Audiences expecting a traditional whodunit will be surprised, said Harrold.
“There’s no mystery at all about who is the villain, and since this is one of the most famous of all the Sherlock Holmes stories, many people will know how it turns out. It’s really a drama, and to a significant degree, a buddy story about the partnership of Holmes and Watson. It’s what the Brits might call a rattling good yarn.”
Bill Hurlbut is Dr. Watson, Meghan Williams Elkins is Adler and John Barclay Burns is Holmes’s arch-enemy Moriarty.
“Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure” runs Feb. 8-24, at Kensington Town Center. 3710 Mitchell Street. www.katonline.com.