The single question is really a series of questions.
Was it him or him or him or him or him or him or him or him or….even her or her?
Or, as Hamlet would say about these 10 people, “to be or not to be, that is the question.”
Welcome to the world of “Holmes and Watson,” the new play by the brilliant Jeffrey Hatcher that opened Friday night at the Quadracci Powerhouse at The Milwaukee Rep.
Seven actors, led by two legends of Wisconsin theater, put 10 characters on a sparse stage augmented by a scaffold-stairs and the marvelous projections of Mike tutaj, in a mystery that is the ultimate challenge for those of us who want to “figure it out.”
Everybody knows Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The sleuths from the mind of Arthur Conan Doyle appeared in 5 6 short stories and four novels and has been portrayed in television and films more than any detective duo in history.
Hatcher has created a play that not only tells a story but tells it the way Doyle – or Holmes _- would tell it, full of mystery, surprises, twist, turns and even a little bit of shock. Sometimes a tense murder mystery is just the thing to get your heart pumping, and this one does the job.
Here’s the deal.
Holmes has died in a mysterious confrontation with the devilish Moriarty, the leader of a gang who has fought the detective to death at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. The grieved Watson (Norman Moses) is certain the two fighters have fallen to their death in the water.
Watson receives a letter from Dr. Evans (Mark Corkins) that there are three patients in his asylum off the coast of Scotland, all of whom claim to be Sherlock Holmes. The only way to find out which one is really the famed detective is for Watson to travel to the asylum and see each of the three, and making the final judgement and solve this dilemma.
That is dilemma number one.
What follows that takes more than all your fingers and toes to count. Moment by moment, things change and what you thought a mere moment ago turns out to be something else entirely. And as you hopelessly look at the person sitting next to your for help you will only a find a play with a look just as perplexed as yours.
Director Joseph Hanreddy has taken Mr. Hatcher’s play and squeezed every tiny bit of surprise from the structure, and then some. Integrating the inventive work of a group of designers into a production that is the whole thing from the earliest moment. A clap of thunder with a flash of light opens and the mournful wail of a violin closes as the lights slowly dim to black.
Mr. Moses, long one of Milwaukee’s favorites, finds a depth in Watson unrevealed in most iterations. Normally you see Watson as a buttoned-up accessory to Holmes. Moses reveals him to be both a dedicated aide-de-camp but also a sleuth with his own special brand of detecting, featuring more emotion that Holmes ever showed.
He sets the tone for the next 80 minutes with his open.
“Of the many unforeseen outcomes of the tragedy that befell Sherlock Holmes at the Falls of Reichenbach, surely the most frustrating fell under the category of ‘False Sightings.’ As Holmes’ body had not been retrieved, it was relatively simple for any number of frauds, fakes and charlatans to come forward and lay claim to his identity. Naturally the task fell to me to disprove the many impersonators who made their presence known. Off I would go, by train, by boat, by horse and carriage, each time to be disappointed, as I knew each time I would be.”Until today. A telegram arrived.
(holds up a TELEGRAM)
“Dr. Watson, I write to inform you of a mystery. I have in my care three men, each of whom claims to be the late Mr. Sherlock Holmes. It is imperative that this matter be sorted out at once and in the deepest secrecy. A compartment has been reserved for you on the Scotsman leaving Kings Cross, connecting at Edinburgh to Starkhaven, then via ferry to the asylum.”
Mr. Corkins, another local favorite, infuses the reserved Dr. Evans with an air of mystery that only heightens the tension. He is a man who is engaged in medical treatment but very clearly has some kind of evil lurking inside.
His performance is reminiscent of his powerful turn as Gideon Kroeg, a brutal South African interrogator in “Burying the Bones” at In Tandem four years ago.
Mr. Hatcher and Mr. Hanreddy have avoided one of the minor dangers in bringing a Holmes & Watson to the live stage.
Part of the overwhelming joy of reading these mysteries is the ability to turn back a page so that the reader remains . When the twists get a little confusing, you just go back and re-read what you need to.
On the stage, you can’t go back, but through simplification and subtle repetition, Mr. Hatcher and Mr. Hanreddy have made sure that getting confused about the plot is a burden not faced by the audience.
There is no chance that I’m going to reveal any of the countless little mysteries or the big mystery that, like thriller, is revealed in the end.
Suffice it to say that the challenge, friends, is to see if any of you can actually figure out what’s going on.
In any mystery the mood plays a big part of the story. And the mood makers here do spectacular work.
Scenic Designer Bill Clarke has created a visual backdrop that is full of surprise both bold and subtle. A single chair and table make up the set. But upstage is a scaffold-like set of stairs with a door in the middle that slides open when needed for more chills. There are stairs to a door leading to the rest of the asylum and a door that leads to the kitchen In the middle of the stage is a lattice trapdoor from which the patients enter. Powerful.
The biggest challenge for costume designer Karin Simonson Kopischke was what to do with the three patients. She created three different looks that made sure no mental patient ever got confused with another. The style of Patient 2 was especially powerful.
Mike Tutja worked wonders with his projections. We saw a roiling sea, a calm ferry ride, a train and a tempest of a waterfall, all specific and all atmospheric.
Ad finally, the sound design of Bob Milburn and Michael Bodeen had elements of shock, dismay and mood. The sound of three unseen cells being opened sent chills down my spine while the sudden clap of thunder made me sit up in my seat.
“Holmes and Watson” runs through December 17 at The Milwaukee Rep
Production credits: Director Joseph Hanreddy; Scenic Designer,Bill Clarke; Costume Designer, Karin Simonson Kopischke; Lighting Designer, Michael Chybowski; Sound Designer, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; Projection Designer, Mike Tutaj; Fight/Stunt Director, Ben Kahre; Dialect Coach Clare Arena Haden; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager, Sarah Deming-Henes; Production photographer, Michael Brosilow.