The task bestowed upon Synergy Theater’s improv company would make even the world’s greatest consulting detective balk. Improvising a full-length narrative play in the style of an Arthur Conan Doyle detective story is no small feat. It requires the ability to juggle multiple narrative plot threads, justify the character traits given to you by fellow improvisers, and set up and solve a believable mystery, all while making the audience laugh.
With this challenging task, the game was afoot, indeed.
Luckily, the ensemble was up for the challenge. In its recent performance of “The Improvised Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, Synergy Theater regaled its audience with an adventure that was far from flawless but nevertheless brimming with fun. Clad in campy Victorian-era costumes and armed only with a set of tables, chairs and coat racks, the cast successfully turned audience suggestions, ranging from “kazoo” to “the empress of England,” into a unique Sherlock Holmes story titled “The Adventure of the Burning.” Upon accepting the title suggestion, Dr. Watson wryly remarked that when writing titles, “one needn’t always employ a noun.”
This particular story followed the exploits of Gilderoy Pennyfarthington, the bastard son of a train conductor seeking Holmes and Watson’s assistance after finding the setup for his annual Burning Man festival prematurely sabotaged. Throughout the course of the story, the cast discovered revelations including multiple love affairs, a second bastard child, the wealth of information that can be gleaned from one’s icebox and the fact that the main character was the queen of England’s secret son. The convoluted narrative clipped along at an enjoyable pace, helped by strong scene support and editing from the improvisers onstage.
Not all of the wacky plot threads were tied up neatly or believably, as is a frequent struggle with narrative improv. Holmes’ solution to the mystery was a simple throwaway line about spontaneous combustion, and a few audience suggestions seemed shoehorned into the narrative rather than fully incorporated.
But with improvisation comes such inherent imperfections, and it is in embracing these mistakes that the most laughter can be found. Synergy Theater’s cast clearly understands this principle — some of the biggest laughs of the night came from Watson’s snarky asides to the audience explaining away a character’s odd actions.
As for the inspiration for the production, the ensemble did an admirable job of mimicking the structure of a classic Sherlock Holmes mystery caper. Holmes’ famous deductions were used as a clever device to incorporate audience suggestions. Cards filled out by audience members before the show were placed onstage for Holmes to rifle through and read aloud, serving as inspiration for impressive improvised diatribes as to how he could tell a character’s background from simply a look.
The introduction of the various suspects, told through live-action flashbacks, as well as the familiar banter between Watson and Holmes, were two more key features of a typical Conan Doyle story recalled in the play. This awareness of the source material was an especially enjoyable feature for Sherlock Holmes fans in the audience.
Of course, nothing made up on the spot can be perfectly seamless. Uncomfortable running gags about incest and communism overstayed their welcome; American accents and modern phrases peeked through the faux-British accents of a few performers. Characters would occasionally talk over one another and confuse each others’ names — small missteps that could have been avoided through better listening.
But on the whole, the laughs were resounding, the story was engaging, and such minor blunders only became a part of the improvised play’s quirky, theatrical charm. “The Improvised Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” was a crowd-pleasing delight, featuring a cast with serious improv chops and a creative, funny mystery that any detective would be lucky to solve.