Photo by Scott Custer
Miss Holmes is on stage now
It would seem to be the easiest theatrical gimmick of all, to rewrite a familiar story but switch the gender of the lead character from male to female, giving the tales fresh pizzazz and a new perspective. However, the risks are substantial since one could easily imagine the disasters that could ensue by refashioning The Death of a Salesman to accommodate a Wilma Loman, or restructuring The Importance of Being Ernestine.
While the gimmick in Miss Holmes, a play by Christopher M. Walsh now on stage at the Ohio Shakespeare Festival, is obvious, the production manages to avoid disaster and deliver an engaging and frequently witty take on the Sherlock Holmes style and substance. Far from spinning in his grave, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is probably sitting up and taking nourishment as he gazes down at this two-hour escapade featuring a female detective named Sherlock (yes, many of the other characters also find that an odd name for a woman), and her sidekick Dr. Dorothy Watson.
For dyed-in-the-Irish-wool Sherlockians the requisite tropes are here, and from the minute Miss Sherlock is brought onstage in a straitjacket and sporting a black eye, her fierce independence and incisive powers of observation are on display. She is in an insane asylum, you see, because she is a woman with a restlessly inventive mind—clearly a sign of metal derangement in late 19th century England. Shortly thereafter, Sherlock uses her skills of deduction to suss out the educational background and recent travel destinations of Lizzie Chapman (Tess Burgler), who has sought her help.
Once Miss Sherlock manages to leave the asylum, she convinces Dr. Watson to accompany her, since Sherlock is aware that she needs a support system if she will be able to assist the powerless women who begin seeking her out. In a play that mandates strong chemistry between those two roles, Rachel Lee Kolis as Sherlock and Amanda Vigneault as Dr. Watson cook up a tasty brew. Each is clever and bold in their own ways, and they spark off each other well, and in an entirely different way than the original male versions do.
Since they are women in that society, they face extra obstacles as they pursue the mystery that Lizzie has presented. These barriers include an initially unbelieving Inspector Lestrade (Derrick Winger) and a dismissive and comically snarky Mrs. Hudson, Sherlock's maid. who cannot adjust to working for a woman who has constant visitors and a job outside the house. In that role and in two others, Holly Humes contributes a trio of remarkably distinct characters.
Of course, as with all Sherlock Holmes mysteries, the plot exists as a puzzle for Sherlock's intricate mind to solve as well as a compelling element in itself. While the character development is a bit sparse, we learn about a tragedy in Miss Watson's past life and about Sherlock's dicey relationship with her brother Mycroft (a menacing Geoff Knox). And it all concludes in a surprise twist that would warm Sir Arthur's heart.
The play is buoyed by other supporting players including a shadowy Ryan Zarecki as Lizzie's husband Thomas. There's also a juicy bit featuring Dimitri Georgiadis as Dr. Watson's erstwhile lover, who helps extract Sherlock once again from the clutches of the asylum by channeling Sid Caesar and pretending to be a renowned psychiatrist, spouting nonsensical Germanic gibberish.
Terry Burgler brings his deft directorial touch to the proceedings and keeps the momentum accelerating, even plowing through some overly wordy thickets. He also deals with the somewhat awkward playing space at Greystone Hall, a thrust stage resembling a runway that squeezes a few double-sided set pieces into a tight cluster upstage.
All in all, Miss Holmes is an amusing and intriguing romp that meshes painlessly with the original material. No doubt the game is afoot in Akron these days.
Through Sunday October 24 at the Ohio Shakespeare Festival, Greystone Hall, 103 South High Street, Akron, email@example.com, 330-5-SHAKES.