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'Sherlock Holmes' blends dance and death, Letta Neeley brings the spoken word

12 hours ago

Murder mystery on a Monday

Before seeing “Sherlock Holmes: The Loss at Whitechapel,” I was skeptical about what modern dance could possibly add to a murder mystery. Turns out it can enhance the telling to a beautiful degree.

The Keybank Rochester Fringe Festival’s provided show description for Monday night’s premiere of the whodunit doesn't give away the ending. But if you’re at all familiar with the infamous real-life incidents at Whitechapel, London — as I was — you may be tipped off to what’s coming down the plot line.

KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival's Sherlock Holmes: The Loss at Whitechapel, performed on Sept. 20, 2021 at Theater at Innovation Square, combines the classic murder mystery with modern dance.
Credit Matt Burkhartt / WXXI

Presented at the newly opened Theater at Innovation Square by New York City-based Rawhide Theater Company and Virginia-based draMAStic Dance Works, the 80-minute original Sherlock Holmes story by Cat Yudain flew at a breathless pace with the help of good storytelling that hooks you with classic do-keep-up intrigue. The absorbing acting was complemented by dazzling choreography, as well as set design and costuming that provided acute visual nuances to illustrate Holmes’ foolproof, ever-scanning mind.

The premise is that a London East End toymaker is dead and that the Holmes-Watson detective duo take the case.

If you see the show, what you’ll witness is a thousand times more absorbing and wild than you might expect from the provided description. After all, the recent Sherlock Holmes revivals (particularly the one starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) show how ripe the material is for enduringly exciting storytelling.

Credit Matt Burkhartt / WXXI

Fair warning, though — do not see this show if you experience seizures triggered by flashing lights. A strobe effect factors in for a few minutes twice during dance sequences in the production, creating a tense stop-motion feeling to the action. The first use of this technique happens almost immediately.

The show opens with a figure whose face is shrouded standing menacingly over a body on a stage flooded with blood-red light. Quickly, the scene pivots to an immediate flashback that haltingly (in that strobe light) gives a glimpse of how the toymaker was killed. It reeks of foul play but almost nothing else is certain.

The rotating out and in of spare, moveable mini-sets shift the scene every so often. Now we’re in Holmes and Watson’s flat-office at 221B Baker Street, with the two settled into their huddle-poised armchairs when a new case barges in. It’s the sister of the murdered man. She provides them with a full police file on her brother and his murder.

Immediately after Holmes gives Watson a rapid-fire explanation of what he picked up from mere seconds of observing the sister, he notes that several things do not track in this case. From there, the audience rides an unfolding whirlwind of dance and theater that alternate and then combine in a fever pitch just before the conclusion.

The actors beautifully capture the forgivable arrogance of the anxious-addict-savant Sherlock Holmes and the earnest —and by turns patient and exasperated — Dr. John Watson. The dancers bring more intimate nuance to the storytelling. And the multimedia presentation of the ever-twisting plot has the toymaker complicit in solving his own murder, provides an astounding amount of details that prove significant, and results in a wrenching denouement that makes you really feel the detectives’ undying frustration with wrongs un-righted.

You can still catch this show on Tuesday, Sept. 21, at 6 p.m. and Wednesday, Sept. 22, at 8 p.m. The show is appropriate for ages 13 and over, and tickets are $15 ($10 for students with ID). More info here. — RR 

Letta Neely’s poignant poetry

The finger snaps of approval in the Beat Generation coffee houses of the 1950s have given way to the ecstatic whine of espresso machines.

Poet Letta Neely is from Bible-belt Indiana. “Being a dyke, you can imagine it was a little bit tumultuous,” she said. “Well, a lot tumultuous.”

Poet Letta Neely presents Geographoes of Power at Java's Cafe on Sept. 20, 2021, as part of the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival.
Credit Ashleigh Deskins / WXXI

Reading before a living-room-comfortable audience in a small venue, Java’s Cafe, Neely confessed to being nervous, but her relaxed demeanor belied her raw words and the intense sexuality of the content.

“Geographies of Power” is one of those Rochester Fringe events that announce, to those who have not been paying attention, that gays, bisexuals, transgender individuals, and people of color — as well as the addicted and the abused — share the coffee houses with the straight and narrow. And to pretend otherwise is a lie.

As the Java’s Cafe portraits stared down approvingly from the walls, Neely pointed out the importance of authenticity. Although, “It’s dangerous,” she warned. “It always has been in the United States.”

So she read a poem in which two gay women on a Greyhound bus intimately touch each other, ignoring the gaze of the other passengers. “I thought I was the only one in high school lusting after my friends,” she said while introducing “Eulogy for a Dyke Bar,” her remembrance of discovering some of the school’s female basketball players with their coach in a now-gone gay club.

Credit Ashleigh Deskins / WXXI

In “Connections,” she spoke of the connections between the disenfranchised, even the terrorized — “Arguing who’s got it worse, who’s at the bottom end of the totem pole.”

Emmitt Till, murdered by a gang of white men? The victims of the Atlanta child murders, whose killer turned out to be Black? “We are not all dying the same way,” she said. “But we are all fighting to breathe.”

So much of these poems seemed autobiographical. “This concrete here is where my brother’s last breath left his body,” she said in a sing-song voice, before giving way to rapid-fire images of life and murder.

Pain is everywhere. “It erases things,” she said of cocaine. “Being clean has changed everything for me.”

Her words tumbled forth in free verse. Nothing rhymed, everything made sense.

We must be careful how we interpret our fears. The devil is in the details: COVID is not the great equalizer, she pointed out. It is the great magnifier.

Social issues such as Black Lives Matter called for more than a passing acknowledgement. “Are we really going to do this together?” Neely asked. “Can we do it when it’s not fashionable?”

And the espresso machines whined in approval. — JS

The complete Rochester Fringe schedule is available at rochesterfringe.com. Go to “Find a Show,” create a list of events by date, venue and genres, then hit the “Filter” button. Tickets to each event are available at the web site, by calling (585) 957-9837, or at the venue one hour before the start of the show if they are still available.

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's life editor, and Jeff Spevak is WXXI's arts and life editor and reporter. Feedback on this article can be directed to dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.