Set the scene: E.D.G.E. Theatre, a self-described “oddity” with a professional theater operation designed to support its educational programs, tackles the notorious H.H. Holmes and the epochal 1893 Columbian Exposition in a stylish, minimalist staging in Rogers Park’s cozy Heartland Studio Theater space.
What’s it all about: Director Orion Couling and Dramaturg-Assistant Director Angela Davis Couling combine their obsessive love of Sherlock Holmes with their passion for Windy City history. Imagining the fictional Houndstooth-clad detective visiting turn-of-the century Chicago to match wits against America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes, the Coulings and playwright Bill Daniel give us a novel take on the bustling and dangerous modern world depicted in Erik Larson’s non-fiction classic, Devil in the White City.
Stand-out performance: Holmes vs. Holmes essentially depends on a trio of strong performances: Bill Daniel, doing impressive duty here as Holmes vs. Holmes’ playwright and delivering a confident, magnetic turn as H.H. Holmes; T. Isaac Sherman, suitably detached and God-like as Sherlock Holmes; and a wired Lucas Thatcher as the dogged Pinkerton Agency detective on the trail of the serial killer.
Also, check out: As terrific as the three leads are, I especially enjoyed the work of young Richard Eisloeffel, who plays four parts in the ensemble, showing some meticulous elocution and pacing as Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ notorious foil, and then later charming the audience with his light socket hair and twang as Wild West outlaw Marion Hedgepeth. While the set itself is minimal, accents including Louis Sullivan’s “Golden Door” arch, classical columns, tiny paper sculptures of White City landmarks and most critically, Genevieve Lally-Knuth as Lady Columbia, the golden statue that welcomed guests to the fair, all help to suggest this era.
More of this, please: From the intricate script (which incorporates a huge cast of 14 and multiple storytelling devices) to directing choices that embrace the power of symbolism, the Holmes vs Holmes team brings us a sophisticated night of theater with often affecting touches that bring poignancy to the horror. One example: As Holmes seduces one of his many unwitting young ladies, he confides that he likes to “take things apart” while projected on a screen behind him is the silhouette of an actor disemboweling his victim.
However: One thing that made Devil in the White City so effective was how it leavened the grim story of H.H. Holmes and the tragedy of the dozens of victims who stayed at his dungeon-like Englewood hotel with the soaring creation of modern-day Chicago and its gleaming expo. Holmes vs. Holmes doesn’t tell that story, so for the most part we’re confined to the dark world of Holmes and rooting that the “good” Holmes will crack the case before the murderer strikes again. Anyone who has read Devil in the White City will have a much easier time following the story.
Do this first: The Heartland Café, the hippy heartbeat of the Rogers Park arts district, was recently remodeled and is great place for dinner or pre-show drinks two doors from the theater.
Do this after: Post-drinks back in the Heartland Café’s buffalo bar – or perhaps some stronger potions a few doors down at Rogers Park Social?
Running Time: 100 minutes (one intermission).
At Heartland Studio Theater, 7016 N. Glenwood
Playwright: Bill Daniel
Director: Orion Couling
Assistant Director-Dramaturg: Angela Davis Couling
Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sundays at 3:00pm
Thru November 29.
Buy Tickets at edgeofrion.com.
Photo by: Jennifer Frankfurter.