Searching For the Real Sherlock
Rep’s ‘Holmes and Watson’ puzzle play has second half sparks after a talky first half.
Holmes and Watson, which will occupy the Milwaukee Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse stage through December 17, is caught between genre homage and genre fetish in creating a brand new adventure that might be better titled “Watson and the Holmeses.”
Jeffrey Hatcher, a veteran playwright and screenwriter with an affection for the Arthur Conan Doyle canon and a chessboard desire to take it round the horn, as sailors and British sketch artists might say, envisions Dr. Watson being summoned to a remote loony bin to determine which of three patients claiming to be Sherlock Holmes is the real one. One looks like the matinee idol, another is scruffy and long-haired, the third appears to be a deaf mute.
No one, obviously, is who he claims to be and figuring out the puzzle requires total secrecy and silence from the professional critics, probably welcome in any event. But that edict of “don’t tell” does make it rather difficult to explain why the puzzle has moments of fun, but the play is painfully rickety.
Set designer Bill Clarke may be accused of doing very little – a stairway, some sliding doors and a simple table with a chessboard — but it is perfectly suited to the mood and an ideal isolated foreground for some engaging back screen projections by Mike Tutaj to set the Victorian mood of trains and travel.
The crew is very attuned, but Hatcher’s play relies on the actors to give life but stay within the genre’s confines. (In a whodunit, we can’t have characters behaving early contrary to what we learn about them later, can we?) This is tricky to bring off. Hatcher doesn’t. He reduces his idea to a cold-blooded maze and tries to distract us with ridiculous side excursions in the narrative. The Rep tries to cover the holes with billowing fog as if the moors or the Reichenbach Falls were always hovering.
Director Joseph Hanreddy (who led the Rep for decades before giving way to Mark Clements) could have pushed harder against the genre restraints, mainly tiresome dialog at the start that seems to defy the cast. But he does strike sparks in the flurry of twists and turns at the end.
Some but not all of the actors are big helps, and it is better for your surprise to not identify them by their parts but by name – Ryan Imhoff, Grant Goodman, Rex Young and Eric Damon Smith. Corkins tries hard, too hard, but the difficulties are not all of his own creation.
There are moments so near to parody – think of the housekeeper in Young Frankenstein or the catatonic victims in Gothic romances – that you may wish the machinations of plot gave more opportunity for theatrical invention or leaps of fancy. But the secrets of the play and its genre are maintained, providing a few clever moments amid a sense of hard labor for all hands.