The next Pioneer Theatre Company production - the late Paul Giovanni's "The Crucifer of Blood" (Nov. 1-18) - may have something of an identity problem.
Even though the play, is based on characters in Arthur Conan Doyle's works (primarily "The Sign of the Four"), some theatergoers are apt to think they're going to see Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" or possibly a big biblical epic about the Crucifixion.Wrong on both counts.
According to both director John Going and actor Jim Jansen, who'll be playing the central role of legendary British detective Sherlock Holmes, the title refers to a mysterious blood pact that three people make concerning stolen treasure, vowing not to betray each other.
"They do it in blood and put it in the form of a cross on a map and that is the object at the center of the mystery," said Going, a New York-based director who has previously directed such Pioneer Theatre Company hits as "Evita," "Hay Fever" and "Fiddler on the Roof."
"What appeals to me about this show is that it has all the qualities of a Victorian melodrama," said Going. "The prologue is set in the 1850s and the rest of the play takes place 30 years later. It's a period that I love - the people and the costumes.
"So many of the serious plays from that era are very melodramatic and not really produceable, but this was written in the 1970s. While it feels like a play from the Victorian era, it is very much more `do-able' than the authentic plays are from that era. Plus Paul Giovanni (the playwright) is a fellow I knew. We both went to Catholic University, so this is a particular treat for me," said Going. "He captured the spirit and language of that period."
"The Crucifer of Blood" ran for more than 200 performances at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway in 1978, starring Paxton Whitehead as Holmes and Glenn Close as Irene St. Claire, the drama's lady-in-distress.
"This is my first crack at Sherlock Holmes," said Going, "but I grew up on the Basil Rathbone films so it's very exciting to get my hands dirty here."
The cast for the PTC production, in addition to Jansen, includes Max Robinson as the corrupt Major Ross and guest artists Julian Gamble as Inspector Lestrade, William Langan as Dr. Watson, Valerie Leonard as Irene St. Claire and Claywood Sempliner as Capt. St. Claire.
Local performers include Mearle Marsh, Sam Stewart, David Valenza, Jason Ball, Rick Frederick and Javier Cordoba.
Going said some of the casting was done in New York in August, but neither he nor PTC Artistic Director Charles Morey were all that pleased with the auditions when it came to finding someone for the key role of Sherlock Holmes.
"We needed somebody special for Sherlock," said Going, and Chuck suggested calling Jim Jansen to see if he was available.
"I had met Jim before and I had seen him in other productions. He's very articulate and he even gets to play the violin in this show," Going noted, adding that Jansen is working with a violin coach.
Going is also excited about the original music score that PTC's resident musical director, James Prigmore, is composing.
"There is a lot of underscoring and that's been a lot of fun. Jim is a great collaborator, and directors don't always have the opportunity to have music scored to order," Going said, pointing out that there is one scene where Prigmore has crafted the beat to match the action."
The prologue for the production is set in India, then the action shifts to 30 years later in Great Britain, where the cast portrays British characters of varying classes.
- JIM JANSEN got hooked on theater growing up in Salt Lake City. He creditshis drama instructor at Olympus High School - the late Hal Curtis - with motivating him toward a career on the stage. The first major role he remembers is the barber in "The Matchmaker" at Olympus High in 1962. "I don't even think he had a name," he said.
Jansen enjoys performing in Salt Lake - not only because he has family here but because of PTC's professional quality.
"I've worked in a lot of theaters where they come nowhere near this quality - and not many theater companies have a hair stylist and wig person on staff.
Jansen was referring to Cynthia McCourt, who also works with other resident companies in town, including Utah Opera and Ballet West. With all of the period costumes and costume changes, Jansen said this show really keeps McCourt hopping.
"Paul Giovanni, who wrote this, used `The Sign of the Four' as a springboard, but he also brought in elements of other Conan Doyle stories and interpolated them into this and expanded it," said Jansen.
These days, Jansen is based primarily in Los Angeles. His works in recent months has been mainly in film and TV. (He can be seen tonight at 7:30 p.m. as Dr. Sorrelli in an episode of "Boy Meets World" on Ch. 4.)
He had a small part in the opening sequences of "Death Becomes Her" and while he enjoys performing on both stage and in front of the camera, it's been nearly three years since he's done a stage play.
This past summer he worked on a new Mike Nichols film, "The Bird Cage," starring Gene Hackman and Robin Williams. It's an American version of "La Cage Aux Folles" and was filmed mostly in the Miami area.
"But it's great playing Sherlock Holmes," Jansen said. "There are few more interesting characters in the world of literature. In my early teenage years, I thought Holmes was a real person. It's a great thrill to work on stage again and be him. The language is wonderful and he never stops talking, so it's both a joy and a challenge."
- MAX ROBINSON, another longtime local favorite, is also having a wonderful time with "The Crucifer of Blood."
He plays the villainous and corrupt Major Ross, one of the signers of the blood pact who ends up protecting the chest full of ill-gotten treasure.
"This has every melodramatic theatrical device you can think of - poison darts, hidden treasure and a wonderful death scene," he said . . . trying not to give away any of the mystery's secrets.
While he dies in the middle of the first act, he reappears later in flashbacks and ghost scenes.
Robinson noted that while the show has a high emotional pitch, the actors are careful not to cross over that fine line between convincing drama and campy melodrama.
"I watched all those Basil Rathbone movies when I was younger and wanted to play the evil duke," he said.
Major Ross may not be an evil duke, but he's still a strong villain.
"The prologue takes place in India during the time of the British Raj. It depicts the acquisition of a fabulous treasure - then the show jumps forward 30 years into London.
"The people have aged, but there's still this treasure lurking around with a murderous past. I have the treasure and I'm trying to guard it," he said.
One reason Robinson enjoys acting so much is - like one of his colleagues in the profession once said - theater is like a time machine.
"You get to go back and see what it was like to wear those old clothes and live in historic settings," he said.
He praised Cynthia McCourt's wizard-like work, noting that she has 15 minutes to age him 30 years - adding frizzy hair and mutton chops to give him an older appearance.
Robinson has been working out of New York City the past several years but is in the process of reclocating to the West - most likely Santa Fe. He was in the majority of PTC's 1994-95 season productions and spent last summer doing "Hamlet" and Tony Kushner's "The Illusion" in repertory for the newly formed Santa Fe Stages company.
"Hamlet" was produced in a 100-seat black box.
"It's really interesting when you have to change your technique to bring your voice down to that size of a theater. The director had to keep reminding me that I didn't need to project like I do in a house the size of Pioneer Memorial Theatre," Robinson said.
Nov. 1-18 at U. theater
"The Crucifer of Blood" runs Nov. 1-18 on the Lees Main Stage of Pioneer Memorial Theatre, Broadway at University (300 S. 1340 East) on the University of Utah campus. Curtain times for the Pioneer Theatre Company production are 7:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and 2 and 8 p.m. on Saturdays. Single tickets range from $11 to $29, with discounts for groups of 20 or more.
Free parking is available. For tickets or further information, call the PTC box office at 581-6961.
A post-performance discussion will be held on Thursday, Nov. 16.