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FringeNYC: 'Empty House' [Review]

by Photo of Natalie Sacks

The dark, violent Sherlock Holmes adaptation shocks and astounds audiences.

FringeNYC: 'Empty House' [Review]

This is not the Sherlock Holmes you know.

For those of you who are not too familiar with the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories, "The Adventure of the Empty House" is the episode where we and Watson find out that Sherlock Holmes is not really dead, that his demise years beforehand was staged in order to take down his arch nemesis Moriarty. 

Playwright Kenneth Molloy and director Adeola Role take the tale as their starting point, crafting a play that is "Sherlock Holmes without Sherlock Holmes." While the rest of the crew--John and Mary Watson, Mycroft Holmes and Sebastian Moran--are well and alive on stage, these are not the characters you are used to seeing in the books.

A Dark, Disturbing Narrative

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes aren't particularly cheery to start with, but Empty House is dark. Tormented by the loss of his best friend, Doyle's amiable Watson has become bitter and vindictive. John and Mary, whose relationship is barely featured in the source material but is hardly contentious, in this play are both verbally and physically abusive. Mycroft, who was once Sherlock's equal, has been reduced to a helpless opium addict. 

This is a world where, without Sherlock, everything has fallen apart. The status quo is already uncomfortable before the action starts, but everything is thrown into chaos when Sebastian Moran, Moriarty's #2, comes to Watson to suggest that Sherlock Holmes is not really dead. 

Watson does not want to believe it, but in spite of himself is soon chasing down leads and bribing Mycroft with drugs to try to access the deductive skills he once had. And as Moran gets closer to Mary and baits John, it drives an even larger wedge into their relationship.

Surreal and Yet Brutally Honest

Meanwhile, threading through the myriad short scenes are a quartet of stylized performers, who are sometimes dancers, sometimes form part of the set and sometimes become silent observers of the action. Their presence, along with an intricate sound design and subtle lighting changes, gives the entire play an eerie, surreal vibe. The set consists of a variety of small pieces of furniture that are moved on and off to represent many different locations, giving a touch of the Victorian without fully committing to a period production.

The actors themselves do a fantastic job portraying the dark and disturbed world they have found themselves in. Erik La Pointe and Alison Gregory give a heartbreakingly honest portrait of an abusive relationship, cycling rapidly between tender, loving moments, bitter aloofness and violent rages. Robert Benson's Mycroft is a pathetic, broken man showing the extreme depths addiction can take you, while Michael Luwoye's Moran is frighteningly slick and alluring and Sam Leichter as Tobias brings a necessary touch of the common man into the play.

What You Can Change

I appreciated the new material that created a backstory between Watson and Moran in Afghanistan, but for the most part the changes to the original Holmes canon mystified me. Every Sherlock adaptation makes changes to the source, of course, but these alterations left the superficial traits of the characters intact while completely replacing who they are at heart.

The play almost read as a revenge fantasy from the perspective of someone upset that Watson never gets to win in his encounters with Sherlock, while the tale's absurd resolution did not match the tone of the rest of the play in the slightest. Empty House uses the names of Doyle's beloved characters, but they are in truth completely different people.

If you are interested in a violent, disturbing Victorian mystery and have no familiarity or interest in the source material, go see Empty House. It is an engaging thriller, one that proves that you can never go back to a place you have left. But don't go if you want Sherlock Holmes.

Empty House plays as part of the New York International Fringe Festival at the 14th Street Y. Remaining performances are on the 15th at 8:15, the 21st at 3:45, the 23rd at 5:45 and the 24th at 3:30.

Want great tickets but hate paying fees? Check CHARGED.fm to find tickets for less and NO FEES!


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