It begins with a crack of thunder and ends with the haunting, fading strings of a violin. And with that simple description of such a Gothic sounding framework, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re reading the intro and outro to a Hammer Horror production, the kind that chilled film audiences from the late fifties, into the sixties.
It is, in fact, the opening and close to the new Arizona Theatre Company production of Holmes & Watson, a new mystery adventure from playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, now performing at Herberger Theater Centre until May 28, though the Hammer connection should be understandable; it was, after all, Hammer Films that produced the first color version of The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1959, a film that, today, remains one of the most acclaimed productions in the film company’s history, and at the time, they were good at that sort of thing.
Once seen, the more you think back on ATC’s handsome, dark, and exceedingly gripping final production of its current season, the more you think of film. Hatcher’s Holmes & Watson has a continuing cinematic feel throughout, beginning with a startling 3D projection of a train engine arriving at a station, complete with the hissing of steam that appears to spill out from the stage into the house, an effect that caused a gasp from the opening night audience, followed by applause. But it didn’t stop there. That sense of cinema continued with a back screen projection of a ferry boat ride across a choppy sea, a journey towards a small, rocky island seen in the distance, home to an asylum in stormy Scotland. Indeed, the adventure begins as all the best Hammer films begun, on a dark and stormy night.
“If this was a Penny Dreadful, it would be a ruse to lock me up,” declares Dr. Watson (R. Hamilton Wright). The good doctor has arrived on a remote Scottish island that was once the setting of a lighthouse but is now an asylum, complete with a couple of evil looking gargoyles at its entrance for good, creepy measure, though due to worsening weather conditions, Watson is forced to stay the night. His reference to the 19th century publication of sensational and often lurid tales is because his host, the somewhat suspicious Dr. Evans (Philip Goodwin) has insisted Watson hand over his gun. Feeling vulnerable in such an intimidating and potentially dangerous setting, Watson’s light-hearted remark comes not so much from a place of humor but of unsettling nerves. And it makes us nervous and unsettled for him.
The plot is simple, which is good because other than the setup, the less you know going in, the better your enjoyment. Here’s what’s important. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1893 short story, The Adventure of the Final Problem, Sherlock Holmes and his enemy Professor Moriarty grappled together atop of the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. They fell to their deaths. At least, that’s what was always believed, but no bodies were ever found. Our new adventure picks up three years later.
Watson is asked to drop everything and journey from London to Scotland’s coast, to an asylum. It seems there are three patients there, all under lock and key, and all insisting they are the famous private detective, Sherlock Holmes. Neither Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, nor his Baker Street landlady, Mrs. Hudson, are available, so it’s up to Watson to journey north alone and identify which one, if any, is the real Sherlock Holmes. And that’s all that can be told.
Clearly, writer Jeffrey Hatcher has a fascination with Conan Doyle’s character that won’t quit. Throughout his writing career, he’s adapted many great works of literature for the stage, but with Holmes, his fascination has lead to a couple of original tales rather than adaptations. In 2011 his Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club premiered at ATC; in 2015, his screenplay, the underrated Mr. Holmes starring Ian McKellan as a 93 year-old Sherlock with a fading memory was released on the big screen (adapted from a book by Mitch Cullen), and opening this past weekend in Phoenix, after a three-week run in Tucson, is the new Holmes & Watson. All three works have resulted in varying degrees of success – for personal taste, despite its considerable merits, The Suicide Club remains the least successful – but with Holmes & Watson, Hatcher not only succeeds in keeping us guessing right up until that violin fade, he’s also written a crowd-pleaser.
Supported by Carrie Paff as a stern, no-nonsense Matron of the asylum and Stephen D’Ambrose as an equally stern, no-nonsense and even threatening Orderly, director David Ira Goldstein has crafted a piece of theatre that plays out like the movies, and for this material, that’s a plus. When characters talk of a past event important to the plot, we not only get to witness a brief moment of that telling acted out upstage against a scene-setting, back-screen projection, you can practically see the visual sweep of a 50’s style cinematic flashback, then once concluded, another screen sweep back to present time. And when the two doctors, Watson and Evans, disagree on a point and both their temper and voices rise, another dramatic clap of thunder shakes the set, exactly as Hammer would have concluded an argument that was getting dangerously out of hand.
If there’s anything you might question, it’s the case of Watson not immediately recognizing which of the three patients (James Michael Reilly, Noah Racy and Remi Sandri) is really Holmes. Considering the doctor has lived with the man for years, shared adventures, and written about him in detail for those Strand Magazine publications, you’d think recognition would be instant. When it’s not, you’re left with a nagging feeling that somehow what should be logical is suddenly wrong; a weakness in the narrative, perhaps, that’s hard to overcome. But hold that thought. This is not only a mystery, it’s a Sherlock Holmes mystery, and while Holmes and Watson may not be the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, its inspiration springs directly from the source material; with Jeffrey Hatcher, like Conan Doyle, the clues are in the details, no matter how small, and if something feels oddly jarring, you can bet it’s intentional.
Told in 90 minutes without intermission, Holmes and Watson is a thorough delight; a play that keeps you committed to its machinations from beginning to its unexpected end. It’s as if that opening crack of thunder is a demand for us to pay attention, which we do. With twists and turns, followed by more twists and turns, like the 3D effect of the train that appears to be coming towards us, the play reaches out and grips; there’s never an opportunity to relax. But once seen, don’t discuss; at least, don’t reveal the ending. To do so would be committing a criminal act of Moriarty proportions.
Picture Courtesy of Tim Fuller