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Theatre review

Recognizing the truth: ATC's world premiere of 'Holmes and Watson'

The last show of David Ira Goldstein's 25-year run as artistic director of the Arizona Theatre Company, Jeffrey Hatcher's "Holmes and Watson," had its first-ever staging here in Tucson last weekend.

As we have come to expect from ATC under Goldstein's leadership, the production — directed by the longtime AD of the theatre company — is handsomely designed, sumptuously mounted, briskly staged, and solidly acted, even if the play itself, an intricately plotted adaptation of two stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (referred to in the script) and the TV game show "To Tell the Truth" (unacknowledged), is, as the Brits say, too clever by half and a rather slight thing at that.

Adaptations

Hatcher, a prolific playwright and screenwriter, is a kind of professional adaptor. He has written plays based on prose fictions by Shaw, Melville, Poe, Gogol, Robert Louis Stevenson ("Dr. Jekyll and Hyde," which also had its world premiere at ATC in 2008), Balzac, Wilkie Collins, Dickens and Mitch Albom.

Hatcher has also redeployed Doyle's famous creation as the title character for a 2011 play "Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club" and for the screenplay of Bill Condon's quirkily diffuse 2015 film " Holmes." And he has even adapted one of his own original plays, "Compleat Female Stage Beauty" (1999), for the quite lovely and intelligent Richard Eyre film "Stage Beauty" (2004).

Premises

The premise of this latest adaptation is that Holmes' friend and biographer, Dr. John Watson, has been summoned to a psychiatric asylum on a remote island off the Scottish coast to identify which if any of three men claiming to be Sherlock Holmes is in fact the world renowned consulting detective, who disappeared into the Reichenbach Falls three years previously in a death struggle with his arch-enemy Moriarty.

You might expect the play to be over in about 15 minutes — the stage-time it takes to get Watson from London by train and boat (a journey so brilliantly realized by theatrical smoke, back projection, and sound effects that it drew gasps and applause from the opening-night audience) to the island's fort/lighthouse (which has been converted, one might as well say "adapted," into a kind of prison/hospital for the insane), and then introduced to the institution's staff and its (im)posturing inmates.

After all, Watson was Holmes' closest friend and flatmate: he should able to recognize him instantly among the three persons quite formally lined up in front of him. Except he doesn't — a huge plot hole not even mentioned until much later, when it is at first rather casually explained away and then emerges as the key to the elaborate game within a game which this ostensibly simple "line-up" of claimants (the police procedure that the TV game show also seemed to evoke) is concealing and obscuring.

And this is the issue I have with "Holmes and Watson." This kind of play, a mystery explained by the rational detection methods of a trained observer, always rests on a credible, "real-life" premise: the locked room, the perfect alibi, the missing body, et al.

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And the operative premise of "Holmes and Watson" is that Watson does not recognize Holmes — but he should, and the crucial fact that he doesn't needs to be explained immediately and convincingly if an audience is going to be willingly drawn into the play's "to tell the truth" game.

Recognitions

Now, recognition is the basic set of cultural and generic practices through which the theatrical genre of the detective mystery operates: anagnorisis, the fundamental Greek dramatic term usually translated as "recognition," is (Merriam-Webster tells us) "the point in the plot, especially of a tragedy, at which the protagonist recognizes his or her or some other character's true identity or discovers the true nature of his or her own situation."

This is exactly the kind of plot point, often reiterated, that motivates traditional and more contemporary detective mysteries: think of the periodic moments of true and false recognition in an Agatha Christie, or the ironic play of recognition run amuck in Tom Stoppard's "The Real Inspector Hound" (1968).

But recognition is not only a generic practice of reiterated plot revelations. It is also a cultural practice of self-discovery: the detective uncovers the secrets beneath the seemingly impenetrable and unreadable surface of modern life and, in revealing the identity of the criminal and the nature of the criminal activity, forces us to recognize what is really going on in the world around us or, in a psychological drama, the world within us.

Deductions

The original Conan Doyle stories were not only and not merely about the new science of forensic investigation, the surprising often dazzling deductions that it enabled, and the emergent genre of sensationalist detective story that it more or less induced and invented.

They were also about the decadent fin de siecle world around them: the crowded, corrupt, dangerous, and bewildering imperial metropole that London had become; the seeming disintegration of traditional British social arrangements associated with marriage and family, class and rank, gender and race; the disturbingly familiar homosocial relationship between the eccentrically brilliant amateur detective and his ploddingly loyal helpmate and chronicler.

Procedures

Hatcher's "Holmes and Watson" is not really, in any significant way, about any of this — it's almost all procedure with very little content.

To be fair, there is some clever and even humorous repurposing of the actress Irene Adler, who outsmarted and outperformed Holmes in "A Scandal in Bohemia," and of the convoluted maneuverings connected with Holmes' and Moriarty's terminal confrontation in "The Final Problem."

But ultimately, and unlike in some of Hatcher's other adaptations, the play these borrowings induce doesn't go anywhere, doesn't seem to be about anything except its own recognition of its own theatricality, and not in the slyly reflexive and deconstructionist way we have come to think of as interestingly and instructively postmodern.

In this respect, at least, compare it to Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss's BBC/PBS "Sherlock" series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, which willingly, knowingly, and cleverly adapts the whole Sherlockian institutional enterprise to a nervously postmodern, post-imperial, post-9/11 London beset by many of the same "problems" (a term Conan Doyle repurposed as a way of describing the puzzling cases Holmes had to solve) and requiring many of the same "solutions."

Indeed, the series presents itself as, essentially, an entire set of narrative and interrogative procedures modeled on the original tales, but reconceived and reconfigured as digitally enhanced investigative stories that are nonetheless rooted in quotidian reality, human ingenuity, personal bravery, and the complex, affectionate, competitive relationships between men.

Credits

I've spent so much time on the script and the extent to which it satisfies and frustrates generic expectations because that is what reviewers usually do with world premieres, especially when, as here, the production is so professionally competent and the play itself is so competently insubstantial. But I should give credit where it is due.

The designers did well. John Ezell's vaulting multi-level set was always interesting and efficiently indicated diverse locales. Don Darnutzer's lighting and Brian Jerome Peterson's sound were appropriately atmospheric, precisely calibrated to the immediate situation, and often commented effectively on the action. Jeffrey Elias Teeter's moving-image projections were startlingly effective, probably the part of the show I'll most remember.

The acting was very solid: this experienced and assured cast had already developed a consistent ensemble feel and look. I was especially drawn to Remi Sandri, as Patient #3, whose painfully blank silence I found oddly compelling and almost perversely watchable.

Goldstein was, as always, a wonderful blocker and controller of stage traffic, directorial skills crucial to detective mysteries. As I've already indicated, the script didn't require him to spend a lot of time on character motivation or thematic orchestration, but he did about all he could with what he had.

Indeed, this wouldn't be the first time sumptuous production values have been summoned to substitute for what I've been calling "content," as if spectacle could distract us, as in fact it often does, from sincere engagement with the world.

Legacies and challenges

Running a regional theatre these days is a very challenging job, and Goldstein will be missed. He has bequeathed to ATC a rather high level of professional theatrical competence in all the design, performance, and production areas an audience can see displayed on the stage — and in these respects at least he leaves the company a valuable legacy.

Besides the perennial economic challenges of financial development and audience building, the only significant institutional problem ATC has yet to solve, it seems to me, is programming, surely the most difficult aspect of being an artistic director of a regional theatre (especially one shared between two quite disparate cities) in a contemporary entertainment environment overwhelmed by choices.

This is not the time or place to discuss how to solve this vexing problem, except to say, more or less in passing, that the Rogue Theatre has managed, on a much smaller budget and with far less sophisticated technical resources, to do most of the work (aesthetic, cultural, political, social, literary, dramatic) that I believe a regional theater should be doing and to program almost perfectly for their loyal and growing audience.

I realize we're dealing in these two instances with crucial differences of kind, scale, and mission, but perhaps there's a lesson in here somewhere for Goldstein's successor.

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What, when & where

Jeffrey Hatcher's "Holmes and Watson," directed by David Ira Goldstein

Arizona Theatre Company, Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.

Through May 6

Tickets: $41-63