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A simple gender swap brings fresh new life to the beloved detective and his companion.
Sometimes the accents wander a bit, and it might be five minutes too long.
With that, there’s nothing negative left to say about Miss Holmes, a wildly winning world premiere from Lifeline Theatre that injects fresh life into the Arthur Conan Doyle oeuvre through the simple expedience of making Holmes and Watson both female. While that may sound gimmicky, the result is anything but. Playwright Christopher M. Walsh and director Paul S. Holmquist unearth new resonances in familiar aspects of the Holmesian world, all while remaining loyal to what the world has found compelling about Doyle’s stories for so many years.
And what makes the Conan Doyle stories so enduring? Holmes and Watson, of course. There’s nothing here that feels like pandering, no sense that a woman’s merely stepping into a pair of men’s shoes for the night. This Holmes and this Watson could only exist in this play, familiar in all the essentials—Holmes brilliant, troubled, lacking social grace and empathy; Watson sensible, loyal, equal parts dazzled and frustrated by her companion—but still utterly new. Their femininity is a fact, not a feature. Holmes is Holmes, Watson is Watson. They are largely the same, but the way in which the world reacts to them is dramatically different.
Much credit is due to the playwright, of course, but in any Holmes and Watson adaptation, things go nowhere without a worthy duo inhabiting those roles. In Katie McLean Hainsworth and Mandy Walsh, Holmquist and casting director Lavina Jadhwani have found a pair more than capable of rising to the occasion. Hainsworth and Walsh are a dynamite pair, nimbly leaping between expertly-landed punchlines and moments of pathos, imbuing both characters with humanity, dignity and fierce intelligence—Hainsworth in particular, whose performance is laced with an attention to detail that Holmes would likely appreciate. There’s no showboating, and no sense that either performer (or character) feels the need to prove anything to anyone. They’re here to do the work, dammit, and they do it extremely well.
They’re not alone. The rest of the ensemble, most of whom tackle multiple roles, enter Holmquist’s story with the same verve and vigor of the two leads. It’s difficult to identify standouts in a cast full of them, but Michael Reyes carries the play’s single funniest scene almost single-handedly, and Kate Nawrocki earns great empathy as the pair’s first, and largely unwilling, client.
The excellence continues: Ashley Ann Woods’s sumptuous scene design makes great use of Lifeline’s space, giving director Holmquist a chance to stage chase scenes through the London streets and tete a tetes inside 221B with equal ease. Rachel M. Sypniewski outfits the ensemble in period wear rich in texture and color, enabling the actors to deftly switch roles with ease—and never has seeing a female character step out in a pair of pants been quite so thrilling. Lighting (Jordan Kardasz), props (Holly McCauley), original music and sound (Andrew Hansen)—all excellent. And Holmquist uses all to great effect, offering up a staging that’s equal parts technical achievement and thoughtful interpretation.
Miss Holmes offers much in the way of pleasure to theatergoers. It’s fun, it’s thoughtful, it’s compelling and empowering and unexpected. But of all the delights it grants audiences, there’s one that surpasses the rest: It leaves plenty of room for, and even demands, a sequel. If there’s any justice in the world, we’ll get one. Should something this enjoyable find its way to a second chapter? Why, that’s elementary.
Lifeline Theatre. By Christopher M. Walsh. Directed by Paul S. Holmquist. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 20min; one intermission.