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Chicago by John Olson

Fake
Steppenwolf Theatre
Guest Reviewer: Richard Green

Fake
Larry Yando, Coburn Goss, Francis Guinan and Kate Arrington
Through the years, we've loved Sherlock Holmes, even when he wasn't quite himself. Basil Rathbone jumped out of Victorian times to fight Nazis in the movies; George C. Scott went farther forward on film, as a mad Holmes with Joanne Woodward as his Watson in New York circa 1971; five years later Nicol Williamson played Holmes too, with a modern anti-cocaine message. All of this proves, I deduce, that flexibility is the key to longevity. Now, thanks to Eric Simonson's new play, we get another dose of haughty rationalism and witty playfulness, with a twist: this time it's Holmes' creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who's resurrected in a story that pits the author against the brokers of a famous archaeological scandal. Science and spirituality cross swords and, thanks to lots of charm and good humor, even a seemingly unlikely "confession scene" at the end is not entirely impossible to swallow. And, with all due respect to the venerable Inherit the Wind (a courtroom drama that gets by largely on style), Fake, as a mystery, may be a finer staging of the battle for the temple of reason.

Fake is a very original work (directed, as well as written, by Mr. Simonson) displaying tremendous grace and polish. And with some fine dramatic flourishes of its own, and very impressive double-casting (in back-and-forth scenes set in 1914 and 1953), the show makes mysterious twins out of fact and faith, holding each up to the light of reason. Whether you choose to believe that the infamous "Piltdown Man" hoax actually came down just as Mr. Simonson says, it's still a lot of fun to see how he gets to his conclusion just the same. Suffice it to say that Britain's oppressive libel laws are a big part of the cover-up, squelching "the truth" from ever coming out, over a skull alleged to be that of the Missing Link. And, as a result of this dastardly plot, Charles Darwin (a god of the modern Scientific Method, like Sherlock Holmes himself) is toppled from an altar of rationalism in the British Museum; his trappings of reverence likewise swept away. It shocks the modern conscience.

Francis Guinan is amazing in his two roles, as Conan Doyle and decades later as a museum researcher. Kate Arrington, likewise, is delightfully bi-polar as a fierce young reporter in 1914, determined to uncover the skull's provenance, and also in 1953 as a dour Lithuanian after WWII. Coburn Goss achieves a complete metamorphosis as a vaguely shifty priest just before the first World War, and a garrulous American in the play's own future-time. Larry Yando and Alan Wilder are extremely entertaining and memorable, too, first banging the drum for the half-man/half-ape skull and, much later, turning on the light of truth. Only about halfway into it did I begin to realize that all of these actors play dual roles. I suppose that if I'd bothered to read the program beforehand, I wouldn't have been taken in at all, by any of them! But, as Holmes himself once said, "everything is obvious, my dear Watson, once it is explained to you." Perhaps if you take your spouse or a date, you'll try to keep them from finding out in advance, just for fun.

Mr. Simonson has obviously done a good deal of research on his subject matter, and the story plays out entertainingly, in the fashion of a Holmes and Watson mystery. Initial appearances are not what they seem, and motives and predispositions are either murky clues or titillating red herrings. And, though the play's 1953 romance seems a little vestigial to the overall thrust, it also allows for some very moving scenes for Mr. Guinan, especially, as both his characters teeter on the peak of their own achievements. If he never played King Lear, he could certainly look to this as a full expression of an old man's heart.

There are two little tiny slips into modern catch-phrases, which may break the spell for a moment (I failed to write down the first one, but the second was that a particular character was "all about the work") and should have been fixed long ago. And the numerous scene-changes seem to grow longer and longer as the two hour and fifteen minute show goes on, suggesting the need for even more stagehands. And Mr. Simonson's "solution" to the mystery of the Piltdown Man hoax leaves a faintly bitter, anti-scientific after-taste. But with all the tricks it has up its sleeve, the sumptuous acting, and the provocative questions and visual imagery, Fake shapes-up to be a terrific evening of theater.

Through November 8, 2009 at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Parking is available in the adjacent garage, or take the Red Line to the North/Clybourn stop. For more information call (312) 335-1650 or visit them online at www.steppenwolf.org.

Cast
Kate Arrington*: Rebecca Eastman, Katarina Meras
Francis Guinan*: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jonathan Cole
Alan Wilder*: Arthur Woodward, Paul Moody
Coburn Goss: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Doug Arnt, voice of Sherlock Holmes
Larry Yando*: Charles Dawson, Henry Billings, voice of Dr. Watson and BBC announcer

Crew
Written and Directed by Eric Simonson
Scenic Design: Todd Rosenthal
Costume Design: Karin Kopischke**
Lighting Design: Joe Appelt
Sound and Music Design: Barry G. Funderburg**
Dramaturg: Rebecca Ann Rugg
Dialect Coach: Cecille O'Reilly
Stage Manager: Michelle Medvin*
Assistant Stage Manager: Kathleen E. Petroziello*

* Denotes member of Actors Equity

** Denotes Member of United Scenic Artists Local 829 of the IATSE


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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