It's 1894, and Sherlock Holmes was last seen going over the falls at Reichenbach during a violent encounter with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Both men are presumed dead, but their fates are called into question when three men, each claiming to be Sherlock Holmes, turn up at an asylum on a remote Scottish isle. Dr. Watson, Holmes' closest friend and confidant, is called in to identify which, if any, of these men might be the actual Sherlock Holmes.
So begins the twisting and turning plot of "Holmes and Watson," currently running at Swift Creek Mill Theatre. Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's script is brilliant, swift-paced and teeming with details and sophisticated literary and theatrical allusions. There is not a single wasted line, here, and paying close attention to clues about Holmes' identity is part of the fun in this production.
The script offers a few special treats for literary buffs, especially fans of the original Sherlock Holmes stories and novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. At one point in the play, Watson refers to Professor Moriarty as "the Napoleon of crime." Even a passing fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical "Cats" will immediately recognize this as a line referring to Macavity the Mystery Cat. Here, it's Hatcher's winking allusion to Doyle by way of T.S. Eliot, whose "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," is the source text for "Cats." Scholars have posited that Eliot, a known fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, based Macavity, his feline criminal mastermind, on Moriarty. It's a clever and fitting tribute to Doyle's lasting literary impact, and to Eliot, a poet who made masterful use of tightly-woven literary references in his own work.
Speaking of references, director John Moon seems to have made a few of his own with this production. Each of the three men claiming to be Holmes seems to represent a distinct and recognizable iteration of the character, who has been through more than a few reimaginings and reinventions. Daniel Moore gives us the classic Holmes, witty and talkative, with hat and pipe and plaid overcoat. Axel Burtness' Holmes, on the other hand, feels more modern, closer to the Holmes of the British crime drama "Sherlock." And Jonathan Hardison's Holmes calls to mind the interpretation of the character as a neuroatypical savant. This smart directorial choice adds layers of intertextuality to the production.
Moon's staging is dynamic and exciting, and the performances are excellent all around. In addition to the three Holmes', Joe Pabst gives a riveting performance as Dr. Watson, and Richard Koch is perfectly cast as Dr. Evans, overseer of the asylum. Irene Kuykendall and Travis Williams both shine in smaller roles as the Matron and Orderly of the asylum.
Tom Width's set is fantastic. With big, heavy-looking wooden doors and walls of faux masonry, it really does feel like a dank old building, and the multiple levels onstage add interest and depth. Joe Doran's lighting is excellent, adding to the mystery and ambiance.
Running at just over an hour without an intermission, "Holmes and Watson" is a wild ride that never drags. This production boasts engaging performances, impressive technical elements, and plenty of suspense and surprises around every corner.
Swift Creek Mill's "Holmes and Watson" runs through Oct. 12. Tickets cost $40. www.swiftcreekmill.com.