By May S. Ruiz
Anyone familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle expects nothing short of the impossible from his legendary creation through the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Fans will not be disappointed when Unbound Productions’ Mystery Lit staging of ‘Holmes, Sherlock and the Consulting Detective’ comes to the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia. It will run for 19 performances between June 2 and July 1 in and around the Santa Anita Train Depot.
Sponsored by the L.A. Arboretum Foundation, this immersive theatre event is a mash-up of three Sherlock Holmes cases, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, ‘The Red-Headed League’ and ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beaches’. The 105-minute, two-act play is the first Mystery Lit event from Unbound Productions, which creates the popular Wicked Lit series.
Unbound Productions, comprised of Jonathan Josephson (Executive Director), Paul Millet (Artistic Director), and Jeff G. Rack (Producing Artistic Director), was founded in 2008 with a mission to reimagine timeless stories for new audiences.
Josephson notes, “ In 2007 Paul, Jeff, and I began talking about establishing a theatre company that will put on plays inspired by classic literature. We had worked together in various capacities on different productions all over Southern California and we all had an idea to create dynamic new adaptations of classic literature of the horror genre.”
“In 2008 we mounted our first Wicked Lit production at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills which went from downstairs to the courtyard. Up until that time we hadn’t really considered to be immersive but since that first play we’ve done only immersive style specific theatre. We’ve produced over 40 plays almost all of them world premieres. We’re working in really cool and exciting venues and it’s been fun so far,” Josephson states with obvious delight.
From 2010 to 2016 Wicked Lit has been staged at Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery in Altadena where audiences walk through the hallways of the mausoleum and among the headstones.
“Soon we thought about bringing new life to great literature that reflects history in creative ways,” recalls Josephson. “In 2011, we produced the inaugural reading series with the Pasadena Museum of History (PMH) featuring works by distinguished women writers of the 19th and 20th centuries: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Two Pictures in One’, Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’ Performances took place at the Museum and private readings at Los Angeles-area schools.”
Josephson continues, “We create site-responsive theatre, crafting performances around a setting that already exists. We found a Frank L. Baum story called ‘The Girl Who Owned a Bear” which we staged last year within PMH’s exhibit called ‘Flying Horses & Mythical Beasts: The Magical World of Carousel Animals’. We remounted ‘Two Pictures’ and ‘Garden Party’ and held them inside and on the grounds of Fenyes Mansion as part of History Lit 2016.”
Unbound Productions expanded yet again in 2014 with Mystery Lit when it began a reading of ‘Holmes, Sherlock and the Consulting Detective’ at The Huntington, the Pasadena Central Library, and the Arboretum. This summer’s staging of the play is its world premiere and, as usual, the producers face challenges.
“As in all our immersive plays, we’re dealing with old buildings and historic settings. At the Arboretum, we have a beautiful venue but there’s no electrical power so we’re bringing in generators,” Josephson states. “It’s also open to the public, with adults and children coming through, so we have a dual mindset about the structure. We have to think of it from The Arboretum’s perspective and the general public’s.”
Reveals Josephson, “When we started immersive theatre, we didn’t realize it was actually a movement. It presents so many opportunities and are impossible to replicate digitally. There’s a reality about a play that takes place at The Arboretum, with the actors right there, that’s irreplaceable . It’s enhanced storytelling, not gimmicking for a reason to buy a ticket. We’re intrigued by that and we try to heighten that experience for our audience.”
“Unbound Productions is a year-round company,” reports Josephson. “We’re in pre-production right now with Wicked Lit. We’ve selected the plays and are talking to playwrights and directors. We’ve developed twelve new plays with as many new writers; we’re stage-reading at the end of July; and we’ll be promoting our Fall show by the end of August.”
Continues Josephson, “We’re on a three-year planning cycle on projects, venues, and collaborators. Our partners are our number one priority. And while we’ve had multiple productions all at once, we’re also a three-person part-time staff. We employ about 50 people who are contractors on individual shows – we have a cast of 12, a running crew of five, a design team, skilled technicians, photographers, and assistants.”
Joe Camareno, who portrays Watson in Mystery Lit’s ‘Holmes, Sherlock and the Consulting Detective’ has worked with Unbound Productions in the past. He relates, “I played the devil in 2014 for Wicked Lit at Mountain View Cemetery. I had red eyes and I spoke with a Castilian dialect which was very cool. I was a sophisticated bad guy like Mr. Roark but very evil.”
“They have a huge fan base and are highly successful; they have also recently been awarded for their costume and sound design. I’ve worked with Paul Millet twice – he directed me in a show in 2003 and again in 2014. I did mostly film in the intervening 11 years. But it’s exciting to go back to theatre and I was happy when they asked if I was interested to take part in this play. They’re extremely professional; they take good care of their actors. We actually get paid and that’s rare in L.A.,” Camareno laughingly pronounces.
During a tour of the Santa Anita Train Depot, Camareno describes, “The first act, which lays out the cases, starts with the actors on the balcony of the train station while the audience watches from their seats down below. People will hear the train whistle and see steam rise from the locomotive to establish the ambience. We’re mic-ed so they won’t have trouble hearing what’s being said.”
“In the second act, when the cases unfold, performers head from the balcony to the ground level,” continues Camareno. “As a member of the audience it will be so cool to be part of the story with actors interacting so close to you.”
Camareno says further, “In Act Three, when the cases get solved, the play moves to the open field at the back of the train station where they have built a western setting. The actors will be able to go inside these structures and the audience will see all of it like it’s real.”
“For actors it’s fun because some of us will play multiple roles and we’ll do that through slight changes in our costume – like donning a hat or a coat, or putting on a mustache to change one’s appearance to reflect the character. We’ll be doing all that in front of the audience but it’s at night so it’s subtle,” Camareno adds.
This role is a departure from what Camareno has previously done. He explains, “It’s physical comedy and it’s exciting for me as an actor because recently I’ve been doing heavy drama. The show is family-friendly and a lot of fun which I think kids will really enjoy. I imagine parents taking their children to The Arboretum in the afternoon to stroll around the lovely garden, having a light dinner at the café there, then coming to see our show in the evening.”
Doyle’s cerebral detective, while having enjoyed a loyal following over the years among readers of mystery stories, has seen his fan base broaden to a much younger audience. Robert Downey, Jr. became an unlikely teenage idol overnight when the cinematic iteration of Sherlock came out in movie theaters. The BBC’s version with Shakespeare-trained heartthrob, Benedict Cumberbatch, further extended the world’s fascination with everything Sherlock Holmes.
This summer, at The Arboretum, Holmes will again dazzle you with his uncanny prowess at deduction. But this time you’ll be in on the cases as if you were unraveling the mystery with the great detective himself, proving once more that ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’.