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.
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.
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.