High Desert Museum Creations of Spirit Bend Oregon

Holmes renovation: a classic twist

At the JAW New Play Fest, playwright Kate Hamill takes her updated Watson & Holmes mystery for a trial spin.


“Why are you here?” Professor Moriarty asked the audience at the beginning of Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B. “In a bewildering world, why come and see more souls floundering in pain and violence and moral ambiguity?”

Because, he says, “You want solutions.”

Playwright Kate Hamill’s newest work is set in present day and incorporates various plots from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, but the pandemic, and the various existential crises it’s engendered, hums in the background. It’s just one of the ways that Hamill updates Holmes and Watson for the 21st century.

Reading “Ms. Holmes” at JAW, from left: Darius Pierce, Claire Rigsby, Andrea White, Treasure Lunan. Photo Courtesy Portland Center Stage

Portland Center Stage held a reading of Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B during its JAW New Play Festival last week. The play, which is in co-development with Kansas City Repertory Theatre, is still in its early stages: The first time Hamill heard it read aloud was three days before the show, and she’s since cut 25 pages from the draft, proving that JAW provides an extraordinary opportunity to see the creative process at work.

“Audiences can come and see the sausage being made,” Hamill said in a post-show Q&A.

Hamill, who was Wall Street Journal’s Playwright of the Year for 2017, is one of the most-produced playwrights nationwide. Her version of Sense and Sensibility, which played at Portland Center Stage in 2019, joins Pride and Prejudice, Dracula and Mansfield Park on the list of literary classics she’s updated with wit and verve.

At its JAW reading Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B was both farcical and feminist, a female buddy comedy that also features some of the most iconic characters from the series, including Moriarty, Irene Adler and Mrs. Hudson.

The cast featured Andrea White, whose Sherlock Holmes was more excitable and less misanthropic than we’ve seen in recent TV and film productions; Claire Rigsby as Joan Watson and Treasure Lunan and Darius Pierce in multiple roles played their characters with aplomb..

As the play develops, there are things I’d love to see accentuated: Dr. Watson’s own brand of intelligence and expertise; the way a cast that’s open to all gender expressions challenges what we think we know about these classic characters; and a deeper exploration of our need for solutions, as Moriarty identified in the opening––the appeal of someone trying to solve “the mystery of you,” as Sherlock put it. 

Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B  was one of four readings over the course of JAW, which also included dance and musical performances as well as a showcase for teenage playwrights. (The other plays were Inda Craig-Galván’s a hit dog will holler, Ty Defoe’s Trans World, and Rinne B. Groff’s The Red Beads (based on The Singer of His Sorrows by Osip Dymov). But the experimentation wasn’t only for the writers and performers: JAW marked the first time that PCS attempted a hybrid approach for audiences, offering all events both in-person and online. (I chose to watch virtually, but particularly enjoyed hearing the sound of laughter from a live audience.)

The creative process is an act of faith, and JAW allows us to be a part of it, providing the opportunity to watch a writer change and adapt their ideas, a cast and crew recalibrate and collaborate with them, and an audience that’s eager to engage.

To share experiences, to hear new ideas, to feel like I’m a part of a community again: That, to answer Moriarty’s opening question, is why I am here.

Valarie Smith incurred enormous credit card debt during the ’90s when she lived in NYC and tried to see as many Broadway/ Off Broadway/ Off-Off Broadway plays as she could despite her pittance of a salary. She is a fervent believer in the Edward Albee quote, “If you’re willing to fail interestingly, you tend to succeed interestingly.” Her top five favorite productions (so far) are: True West (Circle in the Square Theatre, 2000), King Henry IV, Part One (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2017), We’re All Mad Here (Shaking the Tree, 2017), Six Degrees of Separation (Lincoln Center, 1991) and Richard II (BAM, 2016).

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