Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon

Portland Center Stage playfully investigates gender in ‘Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson’

In a modern twist on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters, Ashley Song is energetic as Holmes and Kimberly Chatterjee's Watson embodies many aspects of female experience.

|

Ashley Song, Dana Green, and Kimberly Chatterjee in Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson - Apt. 2B at Portland Center Stage; photo by Shawnte Sims.
Ashley Song (left) is Ms. Holmes, Kimberly Chatterjee (right) is Ms. Watson and Dana Green fills several roles (including that of Irene Adler) in “Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B” at Portland Center Stage. Photo by Shawnte Sims

What might lure audiences out of their warm homes and into a theater in January? Portland Center Stage is banking on witty dialogue, brisk physical comedy, and a female-centered spin on time-honored characters. And Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt 2B delivers.

The play works a formula that playwright Kate Hamill knows well, having made a name for herself devising witty, fresh takes on beloved British and American classics by writers such as Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma), Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), and William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair). Her work reflects an interest in creating varied theatrical roles for femme characters beyond what the “classics” have afforded us, and injecting a modern sensibility that helps us notice points of view that haven’t been given space to breathe.

Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. John Watson, aren’t typically femme roles, and their creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (unlike Austen and Alcott, at least), writes from a very masculine point of view. So perhaps even more than Hamill’s other work, if you aren’t ready for variations on these iconic characters, this may not be your cup of tea, so to speak. Here both the leads are written for and played by women (one still named Sherlock – a running joke – and John becomes Joan) and much of the show’s playfulness derives from that fact.

I might be an easy audience member or a hard one, depending: I’m quite familiar with the Sherlock Holmes schtick and endless variations (which does help, though most people will have sufficient familiarity), but I’m not particularly a fan. This play might be an easier sell for those who arrive with more of a predisposition to delight in the genre. A female Holmes, no matter how well played (and Ashley Song infuses her with energy that is hard to resist) is still a self-assured pedant, which doesn’t delight everyone.

But in this production, Watson functions as the way in for those of us who aren’t superfans of the revered detective (here comically cast as a “deductive consultant”). Evincing exasperation at every turn, Kimberly Chatterjee’s Watson is less taken by Holmes’ mystique than others, including Holmes herself. In a running gag, various Holmes cases are named (generally drawn from the original source material), and Watson interrupts to comment that the names sound made-up. She gets roped into participating in Holmes’ investigations against her will, misses clues then isn’t much impressed when they are pointed out, often feels (and is) used, and is at times immobilized by empathy. In short, she embodies many aspects of female experience, via a comic imagination, including perhaps the ways some women (and perhaps others, too) experience the character of Holmes.

Ashley Song (left), Darius Pierce, and Kimberly Chatterjee appear in "Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson - Apt. 2B" at Portland Center Stage; Photo by: Shawnte Sims
Ashley Song (left), Darius Pierce, and Kimberly Chatterjee appear in “Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B” through Feb. 12 at Portland Center Stage. Photo by: Shawnte Sims

This particular production benefits from Marissa Wolf’s tight direction and a uniformly strong cast. The show is full of quick, comic beats well-delivered, physical gags and slapstick moves made to look easier than they are (as in all good physical comedy), and nifty set and costume changes. The two leads are well-matched; Song’s Holmes strikes a hard-to-achieve balance, capturing her character’s arrogance but winning you over with her full-body/full-brain commitment, impervious to Watson’s wide-ranging emotion. And in a nice variation from the usual take on the pair, Watson is the more human and relatable of the two; what she misses often feels much less important than what she doesn’t miss, a nice jab at the values the pair is generally meant to embody.

Dana Green and Darius Pierce round out the tight cast, deftly embodying a broad range of roles. Green is the real seductress, in all directions, playfully subverting the usual classical inclinations for dangerous femmes.

Sponsor

Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

The four actors strike a delightful rhythm that builds momentum to a playful final act that’s less about mystery than repartee. It’s all in service of applying the right amount of energy without taking things too seriously — a winning balance for this material, and for January theater.

Be part of our
growing success

Join our Stronger Together Campaign and help ensure a thriving creative community. Your support powers our mission to enhance accessibility, expand content, and unify arts groups across the region.

Together we can make a difference. Give today, knowing a donation that supports our work also benefits countless other organizations. When we are stronger, our entire cultural community is stronger.

Donate Today

Photo Joe Cantrell

Darleen Ortega has been a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals since 2003 and is the first woman of color and the only Latina to serve in that capacity.  She has been writing about theater and films as an “opinionated judge” for many years out of pure love for both.

SHARE:
Corrib Theatre From a Hole in the Ground Contemporary Irish Theatre Alberta House Portland Oregon
Kalakendra Indian Classical Instrumental Music First Congregational Church Portland Oregon
Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon
Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon
Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon
Chamber Music Northwest Imani Winds and BodyVox Beautiful Everything The Reser Beaverton Oregon
Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon
Newport Visual and Performing Arts Newport Oregon Coast
Kalakendra Indian Classical Instrumental Music First Congregational Church Portland Oregon
Triangle Productions Perfect Arrangement Portland Oregon
NW Dance Project Moving Stories Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon
Oregon Repertory Singers Finding Light 50th Season Portland Oregon
Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon
Imago Theatre Carol Triffle Mission Gibbons Portland Oregon
Maryhill Museum of Art Goldendale Washington
Portland State University College of the Arts
Bonnie Bronson 2024 Fellow Wendy Red Star Reed College Reception Kaul Auditorium Foyer Portland Oregon
PassinArt Theatre and Portland Playhouse present Yohen Brunish Theatre Portland Oregon
Pacific Maritime Heritage Center Prosperity of the Sea Lincoln County Historical Society Newport Oregon Coast
Portland Art Museum Virtual Sneakers to Cutting Edge Kicks Portland Oregon
High Desert Museum Sasquatch Central Oregon
Oregon Cultural Trust donate
We do this work for you.

Give to our GROW FUND.