What do a deerstalker hat, magnifying glass, clay pipe, red herrings, deductive reasoning, and tangled mysteries make you think of? Sherlock Holmes, of course! The exploits of this legendary fictional detective, who starred in four novels and over 50 short stories by Scottish author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) including A Study in Scarlet (1886) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901), played a crucial role in defining the genre of crime fiction; Holmes’ statue still stands in Edinburgh.
All of these trademarks and more were present in the Field School’s sparkling production of Sherlock Holmes: Adventure of the Indigo Falcon on May 17 and 18. The ingenious plot, conceived and written by gifted headmaster Dr. Todd Barnett, captured the Sherlock spirit perfectly with a missing student, street urchins, intriguing clues, word puzzles, ruses, and the insipid Inspector LeStrade (Bennett Gibson).
The annual spring extravaganza was directed by art teacher Michelle Nevarr with assistant director Josef Bekiranov, choir direction by Heather Hightower, string band led by Pete Vigour, and drum band led by Darrell Rose. The imaginative and detailed set—replete with period lampposts, backlit window scenes, and Holmes’ cluttered study—was built by Jack Brady with students, and authentic costumes were created by Laura Taylor.
The action opened with drumming to establish a mood of tension and excitement, followed by the temporary calm of choir boys of the Abbey School singing a hymn to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” This peaceful scene is soon disrupted by the news that student John Carter Hobart (Nate Hargrove) has gone missing. As the scene shifts to Sherlock Holmes’ 1903 London apartment, wealthy Col. Hobart (Todd Barnett) arrives to request Holmes’ help in finding his son. Holmes (Jay Riccabona) and Dr. Watson (Cabell Smith) effectively alternate their investigation between the school—on the floor of the auditorium—and Holmes’ apartment on the stage. A ginkgo biloba fruit found in Hobart’s dorm room and the indigo falcon feathers worn on necklaces by a number of boys provide the first clues in an increasingly complex mystery. Their membership in the Indigo Falcon club is especially appropriate, since the falcon is the Field School’s mascot.
The fun really begins when Holmes enlists the aid of a group of barefoot London street urchins—a strategy typical of the Sherlock Holmes stories—led by Wiggins (Patrick O’Brien), Badilla (Will Jackson), Zielinski (Ryan Darradji), and Vance (Josh Boutet), to search nearby Hampstead Heath for a ginkgo tree. There the enterprising urchins discover all sorts of clues, including a bloody shirt, bicycle tracks, and three envelopes labelled Hemlock, Her, and Loss—one of which contains a lock of John’s hair and, another, a ransom note for $10,000. The plot thickens as we later learn that together, these words form an anagram of the name Sherlock Holmes! With delightful musical interludes of the period played by the “Bird Boys” String Band including guitar, mandolin, ukulele, and bass—including “Lady of the Lake” written by local fiddler J. H. Chisholm—and dramatic drumming and other sound effects on the West African djun, djembe, and rhythm box, the complex mystery is finally unravelled.
After Col. Hobart follows instructions to deposit the ransom amount into the account of Jacob Erhart North (an anagram for John Carter Hobart) and relieves Holmes of the case—who, as usual, has solved it long before anyone else by analyzing the prints of gloves found on the heath—young John turns up unharmed and admits that he set up the kidnapping ruse himself, partly to get money but mainly to attract the attention of his idol Sherlock Holmes.
The boy was successful in this quest, as was the play in incorporating so many of Doyle’s trademark themes, including the red herring of the indigo falcon feather necklaces—which in the end bore no relevance to the boy’s disappearance.
A pile of mystery books found on Hobart’s nightstand, including Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”—considered by many to be the first modern detective story—were a reference to the English classes’ Mystery Unit, of which this show was the capstone project. The production synthesized literature, acting, staging, set design/building, singing, drumming, and band music into an educational, artistic, and thoroughly enjoyable whole.
These multi-talented boys acted enthusiastically, sang tunefully, and enunciated well; Jay Riccabona was especially convincing as the brilliant and condescending Holmes, and Nate Hargrove was strong as John Carter Hobart. At times the clever dialogue was hard to hear; I expect the theater space at Field School’s planned new campus on Garth Road just west of Charlottesville, enabled by a special permit recently approved by the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, will include needed microphones, sound system…and air conditioning!
The school has developed a five-year plan to build and occupy the new campus. Their theatrical contributions to Crozet will be missed, but luckily we have a few more years to enjoy them!