I’ve seen a lot of Sherlock Holmes in the last few years, both on the screen (as played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and on our local stages (nearly always with David Whalen in the title role). So I’ll admit, when Kinetic Theatre announced yet another episode in the Sherlock Holmes saga – featuring Whalen in the cast, yet again – I paused for a moment to consider how much Sherlock is too much Sherlock. You may be wondering the same.
Well, I’m here to tell you that, although there’s a lot of Sherlock – or perhaps better put, although there are a lot of Sherlocks – in Holmes and Watson, this is one iteration of the story you really don’t want to miss.
Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher sets his tale three years after Sherlock’s final encounter with his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Although no bodies were ever found, the world has assumed that both Sherlock and Moriarty perished in the fall’s roiling waters. Now Dr. John Watson (Daryll Hesham) has been summoned to a mysterious asylum on an island off the coast of England in order to determine whether any one of three “madmen” claiming to be Holmes is, in fact, the real deal. The asylum is run by Dr. Evans (Tim McGeever), who refuses to divulge to Watson any information about the three men in his charge; he also keeps his reasons for needing Watson’s positive identification of Holmes a secret. Watson quickly discovers that this asylum was expressly renovated to house just the three “Holmes’s” (played by Darren Eliker, David Whalen, and Gregory Johnstone) and the only other inhabitants of the institution – indeed, of the entire island – are an orderly and matron (played by James Keegan & Gayle Pazerski) who help Evans keep the Holmes-trio in line.
This is a suspicion-generating setup of the highest order, and if you’re anything like me, dear Reader, you may already be thinking you know what kinds of twists lie ahead. I was implored not to spoil the fun for you, so I won’t say anything more about the plot, other than to heap admiration on Hatcher for very cleverly feeding what he supposes to be our expectations as the action unspools, and on director Andrew Paul for using both the casting and staging to underscore the script’s diabolical misdirections. I thought I had the whole thing figured out midway through, and was tickled to the bone to discover just how wrong I had it. Ah, the pleasures of a well-plotted mystery!
Paul stages the play like one big magic trick, keeping your attention focused on distractions while what you’re supposed to be paying attention to hides in plain sight. The excellent cast – many of whom are playing more than one character, and some of whom are playing characters in disguise – has the tricky job of maintaining the magic trick until its payoff is revealed at the end, and they do so masterfully; this is a play that – much like the film The Sixth Sense – will have you rewinding scenes in your imagination to see whether all the pieces of the puzzle fit together, and because the actors do such a skillful job of maintaining a double reality, those pieces fall neatly into place. The production is fine at every level: Johnmichael Bohach’s scenic design makes excellent use of the architecture of the New Hazlett Theatre, with dropcloth-draped scaffolding making a gothic labyrinth of the playing space, and a large rumbling metal shop door adding menace to the environment. Lighting design, by Alex Stevens, establishes an eerie and threatening atmosphere, and Kim Brown’s costuming grounds the play in a 19th century milieu, while small touches – like David Whalen’s goofy wig – also signal that there’s a bit of comedy afoot. Joe Spinogatti’s projection design and Angela Baughman’s sound design play an important role in establishing the atmospherics for repeated flashbacks, and key moments in the play’s plot get their punch from Steve Tolin’s formidable special effects.
The weather is dreary, and I imagine that for many of you – as for me – it’s hard to resist the temptation to just curl up inside and binge-watch some cliff-hanger of a show. But if it’s a well-plotted mind-twister you’re after, get up off the couch and down to the New Hazlett – you won’t regret it.