October is a great time to take a meandering, contemplative walk in the woods, enjoying the crisp chill in the air and the changing colors. It’s also a great time to catch a show, with plenty of exciting new offerings coming to light.Recently, the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, along with the folks at the Arranmore Arts collective, have attempted to marry these two great fall activities to arrive at one even more entertaining event–the walking play.
A walking play is exactly what it sounds like—theater in the open air, amongst the beautiful fall foliage found on the expansive grounds of the Morton Arboretum. Instead of staying seated in one place, watching scenes change, you simply walk a predetermined trail, set changes accomplished with location changes.
This year, the Morton Arboretum has partnered with local arts group Arranmore Arts for two such shows. Both were world premieres, written and cast specifically for the event, and based on universally well known and loved material, with a unique twist. This fall’s show, The Sherlock Scandal, takes its inspiration from the neighborhood of 221B Baker Street with Sherlock Holmes, based on the well-loved detective series’ “A Scandal in Bohemia” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
While the broad strokes are the same, the story takes its own unique directions and opportunities to speak on modern issues using well-trod material. One of the biggest differences, and indeed, one of the centerpieces around which the tale revolves, is that Holmes and Watson are both women. Whether they’re meant to be descendants of the original duo or the famed duo themselves is somewhat fuzzy, though signs point to them being descendants, but much of the scandal, at least at the beginning, centers around this revelation.
Before long we’re introduced to the earnest, mousy Watson, played by Marie Claire Lyon, heart of gold and anxiety to spare, and the fiery confidence and troubled mind of Holmes, played by Jasmine Lacy Young. Both women are capable in their roles, with good warmth and humor, though on account of the writing, suffer from a certain caricaturization of themselves. This is disappointing, as the role reversal is an interesting in road. Here too, costuming does them a disservice, as Claire-Lyon’s oversized clothing somewhat infantilizes her, at odds with underlying themes to be revealed in the play.
Holmes and Watson have been found out. Their cover, an eager and upright Officer Lestrade, had been posing as Sherlock himself, but the jig is up, and everyone now knows that the famous crime-fighter and his doctor companion are women. Naturally, in the time of Sherlock Holmes, this is a great scandal, and out of a deep anxious need to run, Watson sets up a retreat for the two to the pastoral confines of Morton to relax, recover and plan their next steps.
But it’s not that simple. The retreat is actually a couples retreat, and Watson pushes for addict Holmes to push herself and try to drop her detective obsession for a weekend, while they work on themselves and the relationship they share. But they’ve got secrets in spades, and of course, a juicy mystery crops up, with a wealthy rockstar and Prince of Bohemia (Adam Michaels) and the socialite love of his life, virtuous and virginal (Kali Libby) who’s got some shameful secrets of his own that may prevent his marriage to his angel. Someone’s blackmailing him, and as it turns out, it’s a madame. Not only *a* madame, a madame who Holmes and Watson have more than a passing acquaintance with.
The show starts out campy and comedic, and about halfway through arrives at tense and heartfelt. The Sherlock Scandal pushes the envelope for an “old school” audience, and that was noticeable, especially when topics like sex work, revenge porn and feminism are front and center. Performances by the actors are uneven, with some, like Adam Michaels, Marie Claire Lyon, and Mme. Madeline James (Shaina ToledoThat) having particular depth and range, and others feeling a little more like they’re playing caricatures of their character.
Some other setbacks the show suffered were pretty unique to the walking play format. Our guide was friendly and able to corral a group of meandering theatergoers well, but her over-the-top cheeriness and super exaggerated British accent exacerbated the cartoony feel the play sometimes took on. Conversely, some of the volunteer staff were nearing Catholic school nun territory with their audience chiding when crossing roads in the arboretum.
Overall, The Sherlock Scandal is fun. It’s never boring, with plenty of laughs, some truly thoughtful insights, and it challenges some rightly outdated thinking. Actors put their all into their roles, and in a few cases, stand out with sincerity, thoughtfulness and humor. The walk is nice, and the scenery beautiful. Is it the best of both worlds? Probably not. But it’s certainly a unique and fun way to spend a Saturday at the arboretum.
This weekend marks the final performance for The Sherlock Scandal, and the colors should be downright ridiculous, so if you’re up for an entertaining dalliance, drive yourself out to the arboretum and take a more active approach to live theater.