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DramaWatch: Watson & Holmes in the 21st century

Kate Hamill's updated detective tale opens at Center Stage; plus "The Americans," an all-too-pertinent "Cabaret," and taco-loving dragons.

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From left: Ashley Song, Darius Pierce, and Kimberly Chatterjee in “Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B.” Photo: Shawnte Sims/courtesy Portland Center Stage

There’s no mystery about why Kate Hamill has become one of the most frequently produced playwright in the United States over the past several years. Like a house flipper with a taste for grand old properties and an up-to-the-minute sense of the market, she’s excelled at adaptations, giving a breezy freshness to the likes of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice while treating their essential structure and character with loving care. 

The how isn’t hard to deduce, either. Hamill is also an actress, which appears to help her understanding of what works onstage, and how to make the language play trippingly both from page to stage and across the gap between period settings and modern audiences. She has a  deft, playful sense of humor that’s balanced by a passion for her source material, evening out in a sort of unfussy reverence that plays well to her stories’ longtime fans and newbies alike. Similarly, her interest in what the stories say about gender and social roles has been evident but not heavy-handed, allowing her work to tuck neatly into contemporary concerns but run little risk of being off-putting.

Mystery and deduction are very much in play in Hamill’s latest, Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B, which opens Friday in a Portland Center Stage production directed by Marissa Wolf. But you can tell just from the title that the playwright is taking a few more liberties this time. Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan’s Doyle’s famous detective, still is Sherlock, but her landlord calls her Shirley, and the good doctor is now Dr. Joan Watson. The London they traverse isn’t a place of late-Victorian shadows but one of 21st-century, late-pandemic anxiety, in which the characters struggle with stress, burnout, alienation and loss of purpose. “You want problem-solving under pressure?,” this take seems to ask. “Who better than a modern woman?”

“As a writer, an artist, and certainly as someone creating a new theater piece, there’s been a seismic shift in both who I am and who we all are since the pandemic,” Hamill said in an interview for the program notes at Kansas City Rep, where the play premiered last February. “So I was very interested in doing a modern Sherlock Holmes, of trying to unpack that. I actually wanted to try to deal with what we just all went through.”

Vaishnavi Sharma, a star of the KC Rep production, told In Kansas City magazine: “One of the central questions in this play—and one that is extremely resonant for me in these uncertain times—is can we take all our messy bits and find a place in the world for ourselves anyway, even when it looks different from what we imagined? With the backdrop of a detective story, this production asks: do solutions ever come neatly wrapped in a bow?”

Kimberly Chatterjee (left) and Ashley Song: Detectives on the run. Photo: Shawnte Sims/courtesy Portland Center Stage

Hamill’s version incorporates plot elements from a variety of Conan Doyle’s original Holmes stories, but for an extra element of updated topicality, the criminal mastermind that inevitably shows up works the dark arts of the information economy.

Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B was commissioned by KC Rep (the former home of Wolf, now PCS’s artistic director) but developed in part through a July 2021 workshop at JAW, the PCS playwrights festival. 

It wasn’t until quite a bit into my research on the play that I remembered attending the public reading during that JAW festival. To be honest, I think I might have left at intermission. But it wasn’t anything in particular about the performances or the quality of the writing that I found off-putting. One of the quirks to my set of tastes and interests is to find the narrative whirligig of a detective mystery  – the fine-tooth investigative detail, the mining of psychological insight from physical clues, and so on – to be dangerously dull. Seemingly determined to never be dull, Hamill employs those plot mechanics in what’s been billed as “a fast-paced feminist farce” about “a deeply codependent, quasi-dysfunctional, Odd Couple adventure duo.” To my mind, this merely heightened the essential triviality of the mystery genre.

Of course I realize that I’m an outlier in these regards; Holmes and Watson certainly don’t need me to maintain their unflagging stature in the popular imagination. (They sure don’t need Will Ferrell, either; but then, I’d insist that no one does.) For the vast majority of folks, free from my odd aesthetic prejudices, there’s a wealth of appealing elements here.

The PCS production also has the benefit of two of my favorite actors, Darius Pierce and Dana Green – both reliably vivid and precise, and Green especially protean – playing a variety of roles alongside Ashley Song as Holmes and Kimberly Chatterjee as Watson. 

Opening

“The Americans,” inspired by Robert Frank’s 1950s photos. Photo courtesy Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble isn’t the sort of company to shy away from big questions. Its latest production, a devised piece called The Americans, opening at the Historic Alberta House (formerly Cerimon House), takes on a subject no less vast and fraught than the (ongoing) construction of our national identity.

“We look back to the silent generation, and the counterculture of 1959, in order to better understand our present moment,” reads a description on the company’s site. “Anchored by the photographs of Robert Frank… PETE engages a diverse team of artists to steal from the past, drag it out and dust it off, in order to see ourselves anew.”

As co-director Cristi Miles put it, in a probing preview by ArtsWatcher Bobby Bermea, “We are attempting to make space for a conversation about race using the source material of Robert Frank’s photography …, the language of dance, and the language of theater.”

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Sponsor
Portland Columbia Symphony Spectacular Portland Oregon

Rising tide of authoritarianism, anyone? 

Stumptown Stages presents the classic Kander & Ebb musical Cabaret, which never quite eludes contemporary resonance quite as much as we might hope. Patrick Nims directs a production featuring Roman Martinez as the Emcee and Voni Kengla as Sally Bowles.

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Do dragons love tacos? But of course! Photo courtesy Oregon Children’s Theatre

Oregon Children’s Theatre serves up scales and spice and everything nice (presumably including flight and fire breathing). Or perhaps my Tolkien-fueled imagination is getting ahead of me. In any case, Dragons Love Tacos sounds like not just a plausible assertion (I mean, who doesn’t?) but a puppet-centered good time for young theatergoers.

Short-timers

These days, who can’t relate to the feeling of having to navigate a sea change? Fittingly, PDX Playwrights uses that as the thematic frame for Epic Shorts: Sea Change, a set of seven jury-selected 10-minute plays.

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Bill Wadhams, best-known as former frontman for the 1980s synth-pop band Animotion but more recently a worthy part of the Portland theater scene, workshops a new musical memoir, Up in the Air.

The flattened stage: pay-per-view edition

Back in the Before Times, Artists Rep mounted a memorable production of a play that already had won a Pulitzer Prize – Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy. That play finally has made its way to Broadway, where it has garnered more raves. Now that Broadway production is being made available as a live-streamed event. Sometimes, perhaps, “must-see” doesn’t have to mean “must be there.”   

The flattened stage: YouTube edition

The best line I read this week

“The sea is the night asleep in the daytime.” 

 – Robert Desnos, quoted in the Little Surrealist Dictionary

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That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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