By Nicole M. Robertson / Special to WLAA
Does creative genius die when it’s lulled by contentment? Perhaps. But if a lover is willing to sacrifice for that genius, can she raise it from the grave?
That’s one of the timeless ideas tucked into the charming parlor mystery “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Ghost Machine,” a world premiere running through August at The Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea.
The third in a trilogy* of new Holmes adventures by Detroit playwright David MacGregor, it packs a wallop. The play, directed by Angie Kane, dives deep into questions of love and loss, corporate war, greed, deception and the virtues of solitary struggle versus cooperative enterprise … not to mention esoteric themes of personal existence at its heart.
In “Ghost Machine,” the world’s first consulting detective is blissfully in love with Irene Adler — “THE woman” — who bested him in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1891 short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The setting is (where else?) 221B Baker Street, London; the year is 1902.
The Purple Rose set features a Victorian solarium with flying buttresses and potted plants, a portable bar, tea cart, cozy breakfast nook and books piled all around the stage. A violin sits propped as if Holmes had just set it down. Portraits on the wall include Queen Victoria, a self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh (minus the “Elusive Ear” of MacGregor’s trilogy), and is that the King of Bohemia, whom Irene Adler had previously tried to blackmail in the Conan Doyle story? The characters variously sit on an old-fashioned divan upon which Holmes later rests during a three-day fever dream.
Miss Adler, an American opera singer and force of nature played by Sarah Kamoo, is worried about Holmes, perfectly embodied by Mark Colson, with his angular features, thinning hair and convincing English accent. He enters dressed in a frilly, full-length apron, bringing Irene coddled eggs, crisp bacon, lightly buttered toast and a fruit cup. Domesticated, he no longer seems interested in mysteries.
This is not the man she fell in love with. He’s contented. Soft. Complacent.
Worried about rumors the Germans have a fearful new weapon and may start a war, Irene hopes to shake her man out of his rut and return him to his old brilliance. A crack of thunder (sound design by Brad Phillips) foreshadows the crack in their domestic bliss as the two embrace.
Holmes’ longtime partner and chronicler, Dr. John Watson (Paul Stroili), breezes in singing. Stroili is an energetic and substantial Watson, with his dapper dogstooth tweed suit and shock of coiffed white hair. As the play progresses, he, too, becomes concerned about the mental state of his dearest friend.
Naturally, a case does this way come, when not one but two of the 20th century’s most noted inventors — and bitter rivals — have their inventions stolen while they are visiting Victorian London. It’s no coincidence, of course — they’ve been lured here.
The eccentric Serbian-born electrical genius Nikola Tesla’s secret device — a Death Ray — has been removed from its plain wooden box. Tesla (a mustachioed Rusty Mewha) believes the device to be so ominous that no one would dare to use it, therefore guaranteeing worldwide peace — a fictional reference to the real-life nuclear build-up following World War II.
But with it out of his hands, he needs Holmes’ help to find the Death Ray before it can be used for world domination by some nefarious power.
Sherlock quickly demonstrates how dull his edges have become as Watson gamely offers theories on the case while Sherlock barely reacts. Tesla — a meticulous man who calls electricity “my mistress” and would rather avoid the “demonic possession of being in love” — leaves saying he’ll return for their appointment at 7:20 p.m.
Looking up his curriculum vitae, Irene and Watson discover that Tesla — whose goal is to improve the human condition and not to get rich — had been cheated of promised pay while working to improve Thomas Edison’s flawed designs.
As if responding to his name, a rumpled, frantic Thomas Edison (David Bendena) bursts into the room with his own monogrammed box, which he says holds his latest invention, in need of protection from industrial thieves. Distracted by a flickering electric bulb, he fiddles with the light and demands payment of £5 for his work. He is paranoid that millionaire banker J.P. Morgan is trying to steal his invention, so drops the box and rushes out, also promising to return at 7:20. Holmes is in the dark about these appointments.
Prodded to open Edison’s monogrammed box, Holmes discovers pillows, books and an ashtray inside — objects he notes have “already been invented.”
“What do you make of it, Holmes?” Watson asks, encouraging his friend.
“It’s a mystery,” the detective states casually, opening a newspaper.
Irene is furious that he can ignore the tantalizing mystery right under his nose. She goads her lover. But Holmes is having none of it. After a lifetime immersed in the dark side of humanity and chaos, he tells her, he finally loves and is loved in return.
“As for me, I am happy … and I have you. I know without question that the world is beyond redemption,” he says, noting a stack of unanswered letters from people seeking help.
Tears well up in his eyes.
“I love you and I hear you,” Irene pleads, her own tears running down her cheeks. “But this is bigger than you and me.”
Reluctantly, Holmes considers the case and says the dark web growing around them has been woven by a “black widow spider.” Instantly, the door opens again, revealing a beautiful woman in flowing scarlet and black. It’s Marie Chartier (Caitlin Cavannaugh) — daughter of Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty, whom the detective fought to the death at the Reichenbach Falls. Chartier says she’s on a mission for the British government, and yes, it was she who lured the inventors here with promises of generous investors. She says both inventions are in the possession of the British, but no one knows what they are or if they work. She asks Holmes to help discover their secrets.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to on the same side?” she asks, pointedly.
She reveals what Edison would not: That his invention is a “scientific” way to communicate with the dead. Phony spiritualists and seances being popular at the time, Edison believes he can track the bio-electric energy of recently deceased persons by projecting a beam of light, leading Holmes inevitably to test of this claim.
“Tesla’s Death Ray will take the men, and Edison’s Ghost Machine will bring them back,” Miss Chartier says, with evil delight. “Peace is not profitable — death is!”
The lights go out at the end of Act 1 to set the mood, and disembodied voices echo from around the room, closing the first half of the play in a most chilling fashion.
The rest is for you to discover, as long as the game is afoot.
“Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Ghost Machine” by David MacGregor runs to Aug. 27 at Purple Rose Theatre, 137 Park Street Chelsea. Tickets are $23-$51 depending on the show, with discounts for senior citizens, veterans and students. Call the box office at 734-433-7673 or visit purplerosetheatre.org.
Sponsors include The Hamp Family, The Matilda R. Wilson Fund, The Shubert Foundation Inc., the National Endowment for the Arts, Michigan Council for the Arts, the Ford Motor Company Fund, Secret Crisis Comics and the Henry Ford Health System.
* David MacGregor’s Holmes trilogy includes “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Elusive Ear” (2018), and “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Fallen Soufflé” (2019).