There is a connection that happens between great performers and their audiences that is often hard to describe. You can’t actually visualize it. It’s a feeling, a vibration of sorts, that occurs when great theatre happens. If you have the audience in the palm of your hands almost nothing can break that bond. Such was the case this past weekend when the lights went out on giant swatches of Manhattan, and plunged dozens of shows into total darkness, causing cancellations all over the Westside and sending confused theatre-goers home before the evening’s activities could even begin. But on 36th Street, in an otherwise cozy Off-Off Broadway venue called The Chain Theatre, something else was happening. Something really incredible.
At the final Saturday presentation of THE (CURIOUS CASE OF THE) WATSON INTELLIGENCE, directed by Jean Dobie Giebel, the play was moving along beautifully when suddenly, almost at the end of act one, the lights went down on a scene and stayed down. That’s when we heard the director (from the booth) announce the inevitable. The blackout had finally made its way to us and we were in almost complete darkness. That’s also when an audience member pulled out a smart phone and turned on the flashlight. Within seconds, other audience members did the same thing and lit the stage in a bluish haze of phone lights. That connection I was telling you about, it came to life! This is why I love live theatre.
Without missing a beat, actor Christopher Dippel walked on stage and delivered his powerful monologue to close the act to a rousing applause from this incredible audience. It was, without doubt, one of the most memorable theatrical moments I have had in a very long time, and not the only highlight of this tight, well-directed an acted production.
Dippel was one of three actors playing various roles in a play that tells the story of four Watsons: the trusty sidekick to Sherlock Holmes; the loyal engineer who built Bell's first telephone; the unstoppable supercomputer that became a Jeopardy champ; and an amiable techno-dweeb who, in the present day, is just looking for love.
Playing the Watsons is Peter Friedrich, who maneuvers perfectly from super computer to real life characters with ease. The jump from scene to scene, changing gears, and taking on new story lines and moments, is handled with authenticity and a level of ease not suited to many actors. But for Friedrich, there is a level of connectivity between the characters that he is able to convey that gives the performance depth. each character is unique, but you can sense the connection between them.
For Dippel, aside from the challenges of total darkness, is his expert handling of Merrick and his ability to transform in a crowded space in a matter of seconds. His performance in the dark was simply a unique highlight that was unexpected, but you can expect great acting from this fine actor.
Claire Engel also delivered a solid performance that offered depth, vulnerability as a 19th-century wife, and modern woman finding love. Engel had the challenge of portraying women of different moments in history, and made each one come to life with great skill.
Overall, the production was excellently acted under the directorial leadership of Jean Dobie Giebel. The use of a small stage with all settings from different time periods, and the blocking come together effortlessly and carry this production.
In spite of the blackout, they proceeded with Act 2 and won the audience over in a way that truly won us over. Nothing beats a great production connecting so beautifully with an audience. They might have been in the dark, but they shined.
Costume Design was by Katelyn Quinones, Lighting and Sound Design by Emilio Maxwell Cerci, Assistant Director was Ashley Brooke Miller, and Maggie Lathem was the Stage Manager.
THE (CURIOUS CASE OF THE) WATSON INTELLIGENCE, written by Madeleine George played at the Chain Theatre, 312 West 36 Street, New York, NY.