Shows about the iconic detective, Sherlock Holmes, continue to be presented all over San Diego County. Theatres such as The Old Globe, Moxie Theatre and Scripps Ranch Theatre have all recently produced shows that tie into the world of Arthur Conan Doyle’s great British sleuth.
Two years ago, the North Coast Repertory Theatre presented the world premiere of Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Great Nome Gold Rush, staged by Artistic Director David Ellenstein. The west coast premiere of Holmes & Watson, also staged by Ellenstein, uses several of the same crewmembers that worked with him in 2016 and features Richard Baird, one of the stars from the earlier play.
Jeffrey Hatcher’s script takes place in 1894, following the events of Conan Doyle’s short story, “The Final Problem.” After Holmes presumably falls to his death facing off against his arch-rival Professor Moriarty, Dr. John H. Watson (Baird), Holmes’ erstwhile assistant and close friend, is called to an asylum in Scotland.
On his arrival, he is informed by Dr. Evans (Si Osborne), the person in charge of the asylum, that he has been summoned to solve a strange mystery. Evans explains that there are three men (Jacob Sidney, Drew Parker and Christopher M. Williams) who each claim to be the missing Holmes. Watson soon talks to each of them, in order to find out which one is the real detective.
Hatcher features several references to Doyle’s writing, yet you don’t have to be a Holmes expert to follow the mostly tightly structured plot. There’s enough backstory and exposition to understand the different events in Holmes & Watson.
There is, however, one extended scene that is a little tricky to follow, which involves a woman (Alice Sherman) who was at the asylum. A dramatization of her stay, which includes a flashback within a flashback, overcomplicates this part of the evening. Outside of that particular scene, the rest of Hatcher’s script is nothing short of engaging.
The playwright’s prose unsettles the audience’s expectations, particularly with his portrayal of the three men who might be Holmes. While Holmes 1 (Sidney) seems to have the most qualities similar to those of the real Holmes from the outset, subsequent information about the two other men make them equally likely to be the genuine detective.
Sidney, Parker and Williams keep audiences guessing as to which of them is telling the truth about his identity. Each of them have completely different acting styles, which adds to the suspense of the central plot.
Equally crucial to the narrative are the performances from Baird and Osborne. Their one-on-one conversations get theatregoers invested in the main plot, which becomes more complex as the play goes on.
Ellenstein builds tension as Watson learns more about the asylum residents and their reasons for being in Scotland. He also executes humorous moments that effectively provide relief form the tense plot.
Each member of the crew add to the dark setting of the adventure. Marty Burnett’s set and Matt Novotny’s lighting don’t downplay how dangerous the asylum can appear. Chad Lee Thymes’ anxiety-inducing music and sound effects also emphasize the sense of unease in the asylum.
Kim Deshazo’s costumes give each “Holmes” a distinct look, and her clothing for Watson and the flashbacks to the end of “The Final Problem” are inspired by Doyle’s prose.
In a similar vein to Doyle’s stories, Hatcher includes various revelations that will catch a lot of people off-guard. Partially because of the numerous surprises, Hatcher’s tale is clever and enjoyably suspenseful.
Instead of dwelling on morals or character arcs, Hatcher is focused more on the experience of watching the night unfold. Watson’s trip to The Asylum is extremely entertaining and the old-fashioned detective storyline keeps us intrigued in the 90-minute one act event.
Once again, San Diego County is offering a Holmes journey with plenty of thrills, wit and exciting twists. North Coast Rep’s Season 37 is off to a promising start.