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‘Holmes and Watson’ at Laguna Playhouse is Awash in Enjoyable Red Herrings

Matt Koenig, Matthew Floyd Miller, Mike Peebler, Alice Sherman, Christopher M. Williams, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper and Richard Baird star in the Laguna Playhouse production of “Holmes & Watson.”

By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy

Were the peerless detective Sherlock Holmes to meet his demise, who would plumb the mystery and catch the killer?

That’s the tantalizing premise posited by Jeffrey Hatcher in his 2018 play “Holmes and Watson.” In Laguna Playhouse’s production, director David Ellenstein and company sink their theatrical chops into this fast-moving, tantalizing mystery, taking us along for the ride and often leaving us breathless.

It’s 1894, and Dr. John Watson (Richard Baird) explains to us that it has been three years since he and Holmes were lured to Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland by the sleuth’s arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, where Watson saw Holmes plunge to his death.

Since then, though, Watson has heard of countless “false sightings” of Holmes, setting him on a task, he tells us, “To dispute the claims of these impersonators.”

The trail has led Watson to a secluded island now being run as an insane asylum by Dr. Evans (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper). Cut off from the mainland by a raging storm, Watson stays overnight, meeting and interviewing the only three patients, each of whom insists he’s Holmes.

Among the most intriguing aspects of “Holmes and Watson” is that as it takes us deeper and deeper into the quagmire surrounding what became of Watson’s lifelong friend, and plunges Watson into the role of lead detective as he reflects on and draws from his many years alongside Holmes.

The play also shows Watson as a scientist, experimenting with each of the three Holmeses at hand in his efforts to arrive at the truth.

Richard Baird, Mike Peebler and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper star in the Laguna Playhouse production of “Hoilmes & Watson.”

“Holmes and Watson” is a tight, taut, compelling piece of stagecraft. We’re almost immediately drawn into its multiple mysteries, starting with the question of “who is the ‘real’ Holmes?”

Hatcher, best known for the play “Scotland Road” and stage adaptations of “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” “The Alchemist” and “Dial M for Murder,” gives Watson, and us, plenty of raw material on which to cogitate.

Holmes 1 (Matthew Floyd Miller) at first strikes us as most likely to be Holmes, what with his pointed observations of Watson and his shrewd deductions of the situation at hand.

The first words uttered by Holmes 2 (Matt Koenig), who is bound in a straitjacket, are “This man isn’t Watson,” while the silent, motionless Holmes 3 (Christopher M. Williams) startles us all as Dr. Evans informs Watson the patient is deaf.

Flashbacks play a key role in Hatcher’s carefully plotted story – not just Watson’s accounts of his and Holmes’s experiences at the falls, but Dr. Evans and others dredging up their recollections of key events.

Mike Peebler (top), Richard Baird, Christopher M. Williams and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper star in the Laguna Playhouse production of “Holmes & Watson.”

The script abounds in delightful proclamations akin to what we’d find in the works of Conan-Doyle, as when one character asserts “We are dealing with vicious and resourceful felons.” When one of the true culprits is revealed – and sorry, but we can’t say who without spoiling the show – the actor’s voice fairly drips with gleeful self-satisfaction.

You’re to be forgiven if you take much of this review with a grain of salt, because that’s good advice for anyone watching this staging. It almost goes without saying that Hatcher generates countless red herrings.

One such possibly misleading lead, for example, is when Inspector Patterson is shot to death, uttering two words: “Sherlock…Holmes.” We’re told this means one of the three Holmeses is his killer, though we later learn otherwise.

The play itself and Laguna’s production of it succeed in drawing us into its hermetic world. The incisively written script is studded with sparkling dialogue, witty turns of phrase and laugh-inducing one-liners, and the wry tone Hatcher generates is reflected by the tongue-in-cheek ambiance of Ellenstein’s staging.

Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Mike Peebler, Matt Koenig and Richard Baird star in the Laguna Playhouse production of “Holmes & Watson.”

In terms of its many twists and turns, this devilishly clever script is skillfully performed at Laguna Playhouse. Baird’s Watson isn’t just starchily, stiffly proper, but the calm, patient soul of equanimity. With his crisp mannerisms and spot-on British dialect, Baird is ideal.

Miller’s Holmes 1 projects authority and self-confidence. Koenig’s Holmes 2 is emotionally erratic and easily rattled (as scripted).

Williams’s Holmes 3 is at first so stock still he’s nearly catatonic. When we later learn the reasoning behind this is fiction, the actor’s delivery and articulate manner reveal Holmes 3’s sharp mind.

Mongiardo-Cooper paints a polished, erudite Dr. Evans, ever skeptical of Watson’s insights into who Holmes was – and who he is now if he has, in fact, survived death.

Mike Peebler’s vocal delivery delineates two dissimilar characters: He’s all snide, sharp edges as the crafty, treacherous Moriarty and uses a tangy Scottish brogue for the dogged, insistent policeman, Inspector Patterson. Peebler also plays the almost non-descript orderly. Overlook the character at your own risk.

As a matter of fact, it’s safe to say that none of the characters we meet are who or what we believe them to be.

Like several cast members, Alice Sherman handles multiple roles – the asylum’s coldly efficient Matron and a mystery character known only as “The Woman” whose identity is tightly bound up in the numerous mysteries eventually unraveled.

Ideally suiting the nature of the story is Stephen Gifford’s scenic design of the cavernous asylum and its stone walls, steel-gray coloring and mood of gloom and foreboding.

For the flashbacks to Holmes’s fateful meeting with Moriarty, Ellenstein darkens the stage and lights the upstage high window, where water showers down outside and mist seeps in below it.

Kate Bergh’s monochromatic costumes suit the setting and the dark mood of Hatcher’s script, and the combined work of Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting and Ian Scot’s sound and projections completes the effect of a late 19th-century hell on earth where the truth is likely to be strangled before it can emerge.

With so many clues so carefully created, then planted to confuse us, “Holmes and Watson” also generates, along with the suspense, tons of theatergoing fun.

Moulton Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. Through June 16. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes (no intermission). Tickets: $45 to $84. Ticket purchase/information: 949-497-2787, www.lagunaplayhouse.org.

 

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Source: Newport Beach Independent

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