Richard Baird (right) stars in "Holmes & Watson." Photo by Aaron Rumley
An 1894 version of “To Tell the Truth,” North Coast Repertory Theatre’s Holmes & Watson summons Dr. John Watson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous chronicler of the adventures of the great detective Sherlock Holmes, to an island asylum off Scotland where he is asked to identify which of three imprisoned men is the real Holmes. But in this production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s one-act puzzler, there’s no predicting where the story will go from there. In a mystery, and Holmes & Watson is decidedly a mystery, that’s a definite asset. Trying to keep up with false leads and red herrings is another thing. So is the play’s tendency to explain and explain some more in such a talky manner that the action, such as it is, can drag.
Director David Ellenstein employs enough active devices, such as gunshots, physical confrontations and flashbacks to the fated Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland where Holmes allegedly escaped death at hands of diabolical foe Professor Moriarty, to move the 85 minutes along. Holmes & Watson also benefits from the cool, magnetic presence of Richard Baird as Watson, who really is the play’s principal character. Baird projects the kind of Dr. Watson – composed, reasoned and fearless – that Doyle intended but which was often in film or TV adaptations portrayed as a sputtering satellite orbiting Holmes’ genius.
Without giving away the goods, however, be forewarned that nothing or no one in Holmes & Watson is necessarily what they seem to be, and that’s the plum for mystery fans. Those neither particularly versed in the Holmes world nor enamored of twisting, turning plots may find this play wearisome. Though with the explicit title Holmes & Watson, it’s hard to imagine anyone wandering into the show unawares.
Sherlock Holmes devotees should absolutely enjoy this smartly written take on a Doyle adventure, and the production’s costumes (designed by Kim Deshazo) and dingy asylum set (by Marty Burnett) are right in line with the period in all its trappings. It’s still early to qualify as holiday-season fare (and Holmes & Watson closes on Nov. 18), but this North Coast Rep offering is one to take the whole family or those out-of-town relatives to. Especially if they love a good mystery.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/7/18.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat