Saturday, September 29, 2018

Meta-elementary: IRT's 'Holmes and Watson' presents Conan Doyle's pseudo-posthumous sleuth

Uneasy visitor: Watson is apprehensive when served by the Matron as Dr. Evans watches.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was forced by public demand to keep Sherlock Holmes in the game, and that interest has not waned considerably in the almost nine decades since the author's death. It's left to literary discipleship of the sort Jeffrey Hatcher exercises in "Holmes and Watson" to keep the legacy fresh in the 21st century.

Perhaps we're nostalgic for the extraordinary ability to figure things out by deduction and observation, assisted by such primitive technology as the telegram. Nowadays, it's still hard to figure out what's what, but that's not for lack of information. It's the technological overload that may have diminished our rudimentary ability to use the skills that were Sherlock Holmes' stock in trade.

Hatcher's one-act thriller, which opened Indiana Repertory Theatre's 47th season Friday night,  suggests at first that Holmes' unique acumen died with him. The focus is on Watson, his venerable assistant, to ascertain that the detective is either dead after a final struggle at Reichenbach Falls with his nemesis Moriarty or lives on as one of three lunatics confined at a remote asylum off the coast of Scotland.

Watson, played with solid, likable, common-sense steadiness and resolve by Torrey Hanson, has a stake through his own writing in believing the great detective to be deceased. Summoned to the island, he's justifiably on edge in his initial conversation with Dr. Evans (Henry Woronicz), who runs the asylum, and in brusque, unsettling encounters with the staff, an Orderly (Ryan Artzberger) and a Matron, after he arrives. His joke about feeling like a character in a penny-dreadful falls flat — it will be much later before we learn what makes it so leaden.

In a world where people can visit Holmes' abode as a museum on Baker Street in London, as if the detective were a historical figure, the lines between fiction and reality are constantly rubbed out and redrawn on the Holmes estate. Hatcher's play revels in the perpetual ambiguity.

Risa Brainin directs a cast exhibiting delightful poise and patience in letting the complications of Hatcher's tale tangle and untangle. We see things through Watson's eyes for quite a time into the play. When Jennifer Johansen as the Matron repeatedly fixes a dour, crooked-neck stare on the visitor, for instance, like Watson we think what a weird woman she is. Later we will learn what her gimlet-eyed appraisal means.

The surprises are eventually cataclysmic. They come at us with the overlapping and overturning of information we have processed incompletely all along. They are like the stretto conclusion of some crazy fugue. In introducing the characters thus far, I could have set any of the names and epithets between scare quotes; everyone turns out different from how he or she is initially presented.

That includes the three inmates, identified as Holmes 1, Holmes 2, and Holmes 3: The first, volubly
Watson sizes up the first claimant to Sherlock Holmes' identity.
contentious and fussily rational in the performance of Michael Brusasco, comes across like a Sherlock Holmes tribute artist. Dismiss him or not?

Perhaps Nathan Hosner as the straitjacketed Holmes 2 — shaggy, full-bearded, and straitjacketed — comes too close to the madman stereotype to be believable as Holmes, so we cleverly think he must be the one. But wait: that's just the kind of false clarity that mystery writers (and magicians) love to deceive us with. We latch onto the obvious and stride down perceptual blind alleys.

 Finally, the "Holmes and Watson" audience gets the blank-slate Holmes 3 – Rob Johansen in a zombie-esque, catatonic condition, apparently impervious to every external stimulus. How to break through? Watson is at first as stymied as we are.

The play encompasses other scenes vividly recalled by characters, including contrasting accounts of the fateful final meeting of Holmes and Moriarty shown up high toward the rear of the stage. There are also scenarios of intrigue at parties on the Continent that bear on the story of Holmes' apparent demise. It appeals to the English mind to imagine that people relate differently to each other over there, and that only Anglo-Saxon brass-tacks thinking can sort things out. We get fitful glimpses of such mysteries to help prepare us for the realization that the path through to the truth will not be easy.

Robert Mark Morgan's set takes advantage of the fact that the asylum is a former lighthouse. Thus the
Holmes 2 gathers his thought as Watson looks at the aperture image.
sweeping curves are germane to both the setting and the lack of right angles in the action. The curves are used to encompass an eyelike outlook, in which some of the audience's crucial views are widened and narrowed to a distant perspective, as if through a camera's aperture. Michael Klaers' lighting design impresses the resemblance upon us.

The setting on a remote Scottish island takes in the cultural stature of that country— its wildness, its wealth of stark legends of shape-shifting and perpetual conflict  — well known to native son Conan Doyle. Some of our operative fanciful language is Scottish in origin: there is "glamour" (originally associated with the occult), also "uncanny" and"eerie." At the same time, Scotland is associated with strict application of reason, sometimes reductive, through such philosophers as David Hume and Adam Smith and the Calvinistic proprieties of Presbyterianism.

It's worth remembering that a blend of these qualities sets up a novella as canonical as the Sherlock Holmes stories: "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, " by the Scots writer Robert Louis Stevenson, adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Hatcher and presented under Brainin's direction  by IRT in 2012. The transformation of identity so frightening in that story becomes kaleidoscopic in "Holmes and Watson." The patterns don't clarify until the kaleidoscope stops turning at the very end. Just like the toy, that's fun along the way, and fun when it stops.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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