Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's 'Holmes and Watson' is a thoroughly entertaining thriller
"Holmes and Watson" -- ★ ★ ★
If Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's "Holmes and Watson" leaves you dizzy, you're not alone.
Exiting the McAninch Arts Center on opening night, an audience member remarked she found Jeffrey Hatcher's 2017 suspense/thriller so perplexing she half-believed she was fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, who in the play has gone missing.
Hatcher's Byzantine one-act has that effect. Fortunately, BTE's thoroughly entertaining production -- briskly directed by College of DuPage alumnus Ron May and performed with gusto by a veteran cast -- makes up for an often convoluted, exposition-heavy narrative and one singularly problematic plot point.
For inspiration, Hatcher drew upon Arthur Conan Doyle's story "The Final Problem," which concludes with Holmes and his arch enemy Professor Moriarty apparently plummeting to their deaths after they struggled along the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland.
Accented by Clair Chrzan's moody lighting and Christopher Kriz's dark and stormy sound effects, the play unfolds on Pauline Oleksy's soaring set, a fortresslike tower that suggests the Reichenbach Falls that inspired Hatcher's thriller.
"Holmes and Watson" unfolds about three years after the fatal confrontation. During that time, Holmes' friend and partner Dr. John Watson (Norm Woodel, ideal as the stalwart skeptic) has debunked claims by numerous men who insisted they were Sherlock Holmes. As the play opens, Dr. Evans, played with polite insistence by Matt Penn, whose performance suggests he's holding something back, has summoned Watson to a psychiatric facility on an island off Scotland's coast where three inmates each claim to be Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes #1 (played with an aggressive swagger by Kurt Naebig) most closely resembles the literary Holmes. Garrulous and acerbic, he greets Watson as an old friend and quickly dominates the interrogation.
The skittish Holmes #2 (a sympathetic Ken Borden) is least like his fictional counterpart. Still shaken by his encounter with Moriarty, Holmes #2 -- who's confined in a straitjacket -- is perhaps the most pitiable of the three.
The most inscrutable is Holmes #3 (an unearthly, nicely ambiguous Mike Speller) who arrived at the asylum with a sign around his neck naming him as Sherlock Holmes. Unable to hear or speak, Holmes #3 appears catatonic, but under hypnosis he reveals his version of the Reichenbach fall.
It's up to Watson to uncover the impostor(s). As May pointed out in an interview, "Holmes and Watson" isn't so much a whodunit as a who-is-it. Still, Hatcher includes a murder or two along with a mysterious woman whose involvement is among the play's more knotty elements.
Rounding out the cast is Steven Winterstein's subtly menacing orderly and Robyn Coffin's no-nonsense matron.
To reveal more would spoil the surprise. Suffice to say Hatcher's droll drama keeps the audience guessing. However, the subplot about a mysterious woman is confusing and Watson's failure to identify his old friend from the asylum inmates feels amiss. Moreover, Hatcher's failure to elaborate on madness -- a condition Watson references upon arriving at the asylum and which animates characters throughout Doyle's canon -- is among several threads Hatcher leaves hanging. Fortunately, BTE's well-acted, good-looking production compensates for the narrative knots.
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Location: Playhouse Theater at the McAninch Arts Center, College of DuPage, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn, (630) 942-4000 or atthemac.org/buffalo-theatre-ensemble
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 6
Running time: About 80 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Free parking in lot adjacent to the McAninch Arts Center
Rating: For teens and older; contains adult subject matter and language, gunshots used