Great Actors in “Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson-Apt. 2B”
Kate Hamill, the extremely popular playwright who repackages classic literature and serves it back up onstage in a post-modern sensibility by cutting roles, gender-swapping characters to a feminist purpose, and generally having a fast and loose time with the text. Hamill is an actress who made her mark with a Bedlam Theatre production of her “Sense and Sensibility” in 2014. It returned for a successful off-Broadway run at the Gym at Judson, which was fresh, fast, and always inventive, with minimal set pieces used multiple times to different effects. As I remember, the trees had a life of their own. They provided privacy in one scene and helped to convey a heedless country gallop as they whipped by the riders onstage.
Hamill has also adapted “Pride and Prejudice,” “Vanity Fair” at the late lamented Pearl Theatre, “Little Women,” Dracula,” and now Sherlock. “Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson-Apt. 2B” debuted at Kansas City Rep in 2021, and it’s not clear to me what the feminist perspective is in swapping these roles other than creating two great roles and challenging actors to have the most fun possible through a thorny hugger mugger plot. There are questions about Holmes and Watson’s relationship as there was when they were played by men. Are they in an educational, supportive, professional, or romantic relationship? “Roommates!” cries Nessa Norich as Dr. Joan Watson. We meet Mrs. Hudson (hilarious Francesca Fernandez playing a wild assortment of characters) as their landlady first, and she introduces Watson to Holmes (Sarah Haider) as a prospective tenant looking to share her room. Rounding out the cast is Michael Frederic, who does triple duty garnering the plum roles of Lestrade and Moriarty along the way.
Hamill dramatizes two of the more famous Holmes stories, “A Study in Scarlet” and “A Scandal in Bohemia.” One would have more than sufficed, as the evening grows rather long. The first is the introductory appearance of Holmes back in 1887 and sets up the relationship between Holmes and Watson and introduces Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade, and the magnifying glass as a tool of detection. There is great fun to be had in shuttling through this mystery at a breakneck pace with a cast of four, and their director Aneesha Kudtarkar and her cast make the most of it. “Bohemia” introduces Irene Adler who is given a striking and fearsome personage by Fernandez. We also finally meet Sherlock’s nemesis, Moriarty, whom Holmes refers to as “the Napoleon of crime.”
All four actors are better than their material here and are the primary reason for attending, and make the evening more than worthwhile. They are all extremely accomplished performers and are able to make strong characters quickly while wringing out laughs from this sometimes less-than-stellar material. I have a bit of a hard time with poking fun at Sherlock because his character itself is nearly a satire already. I am rarely surprised by his feats of detection because I check out of his stories, and I don’t believe they are able to be worked out by the average reader with the evidence given.
Sarah Haider is nearly unrecognizable as Holmes after her turn as Susy in “Wait Until Dark” last season. She is impulsive, athletic, and filled with derring-do in a compulsively watchable characterization. Norich is a great match for her, adding a cranky contemporary leavening of the outsize situations going on. It’s a great comic performance, and she is much loved as she is the audience’s surrogate onstage. Fernandez and Frederic get the showy challenge of coming up with multiple personalities, and if there are gasps in the audience from this thriller, it is due to this duo’s superior craft, speed and agility creating diametrically opposed characters.
The set is by Sarah Karl and it holds some fun surprises as the apartment morphs with the removal of a bookcase or door. I did think the conclusion of the show was too long, too loud, and wasn’t helped by a less than imaginative creation of a train with various furniture items dimly lit by Jackie Fox.
There are some great laughs in “Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson-Apt. 2B” and a superlative cast, which make this evening on comfy Baker Street well spent.
“Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson-Apt. 2B” plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival through 8/26. Tickets: dorsettheatrefestival.org