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The Femme’s Afoot in CSC’s “Miss Holmes”

Review by Doug Iden of “Miss Holmes”: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

In a reimagined take on the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the regional premiere of Christopher Walsh’s Miss Holmes opened at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company theater.  In CSC’s “season of the woman,” Kelly Mengelkoch and Sara Clarke play Sherlock and Dr. Dorothy Watson respectively.  But this is not just two women playing the tried and true male twosome but actually a different slant on the relationship and the series, including an “origins” story and a unique history of the characters. The ongoing characters of Holmes, Watson and Inspector Lestrade (Josh Katawick) all meet for the first time in the play.

In this version, we meet Sherlock who has been exiled to an asylum, complete with straitjacket, by her mysterious brother Mycroft Holmes (Jeremy Dubin).  Mycroft is trying to protect Sherlock from her reckless nature, knowing full well that she could escape from the hospital at any time.  Simultaneously, we meet Dr. Watson who had to leave Victorian England to obtain her medical education and is presently working at the London School of Medicine for Women.  Holmes has suffered some injuries during her “treatment” at the asylum and Mycroft has allowed her to seek medical help.  Thus, the two primary characters meet.  Sherlock convinces Dr. Watson to stay with her at 221b Baker Street.

The mystery begins when the wife of Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Chapman (Sean Hagerty) receives warning letters.  Concerned, Lizzie Chapman (Maggie Lou Rader) consults with Sherlock and very reluctant Dr. Watson who thinks they should leave well enough alone.  Miss Holmes, however, is a voracious reader of the newspapers and knows that Lizzie’s husband has just been accused of some nefarious activities.  Sherlock is suspicious.  She enlists the aid of Inspector Lestrade who has very serious doubts about the integrity of his fellow policeman.  Then, things start to get complicated.  I will not disclose much more about the mystery but it is not as straightforward as it initially appears.

The play begins to take two intertwined tracks, the pursuit of the mystery and the growing relationship between the women.  The relationship which Watson has with Holmes differs based upon the interpretation but has, at times, included confidante, sidekick, bumbling comic relief (Nigel Bruce’s version in the Basil Rathbone movies), stalwart supporter, inadvertent dispenser of a vital clue and an audience for Holmes’ musings about the case.  Rarely does the word or the sentiment of friendship arise, primarily due to Holmes’ classic reticence, haughtiness and disdain for emotional ties.  However, this play is all about friendship.  Mycroft mentions early that Sherlock has no friends with little likelihood of having any.  But, as the play progresses, the two women become both friends and equals.  The transformation is a testament to the excellent performances of the two actresses.

You could even argue that, despite the title, the main character is actually Dr. Watson, who takes significant, dangerous action to rescue Holmes who has been sent back to the asylum by Mycroft and Inspector Chapman.  Nigel Bruce would never have done that.  Watson applies her medical skills as observer and diagnostician to the ongoing investigation.

The play also has some significant feminist themes although it is written by a man, including the role of women in Victorian society (professional versus homemaker), being underestimated intellectually and generally treated with disdain by their husbands and society.

Except for Clarke and Mengelkoch, all of the other seven actors play multiple parts – some sinister and some comedic.  Darnell Pierre Benjamin plays Dr. Watson’s spurned suitor as well as a snobbish Reginald and an orderly.  Geoffrey Warren Barnes II is Edwin Greener, who is a confidant of Chapman, and Rader also portrays two small but significant characters.  It is Miranda McGee, however, who steals certain scenes while playing an ebullient Mrs. Hudson plus an imperious society woman and the helpful doctor Elizabeth Anderson.  As usual, the actors excel.

The set design by Shannon Moore is black and stark with several stairways, a balcony, a door, and several levels ofplatforms which allow the actors to create different scenes through your own imagination.  There is an interesting visual effect projected on a screen showing the motion of a carriage ride and “subtitles” in English during the comic rescue of Holmes from the hospital while pretending to be German doctors.  The actors use props, mostly benches, to simulate furniture in various locations.  The costumes designed by Clara Jean Kelly are very Victorian with the hint of a trousers dress worn by Holmes.  Rader, as Lizzie Chapman, wears a classy dress and hat and the gentlemen wear period suits.  With a limited set, they do a good job of evoking a 19th Century gaslight environment.

All of the characters speak in dialect coached by D’Arcy Smith.  Generally, the dialects are sufficient but there are a few slips.  A small quibble is that, at times, I missed words spoken by several of the actors, mostly because of the accents.

Having never seen this play but, being a huge mystery fan, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I assumed that it was a spoof but it definitely is not, although there is a lot of comedy in the piece.  The reimagination is very intriguing with an interesting mix of classic Holmes structures and personalities plus an original promise. The production is excellent.  The author even allowed a hint of a sequel.

So, grab your magnifying glass, leave your pipe behind and jump into your horse-drawn carriage while attending Miss Holmes at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Theater running through August 4.