My Dear Watson

A brilliant world premiere that also bids farewell to an ATC mensch

It was a dark and stormy night.

Well, of course it was. This was to be a story of mysterious characters and unexplained deaths and smart minds in secret collaboration, some to create mysteries and others to unravel them. This was to be a classic, upscale whodunit, teasing our minds, torturing our powers of reason and tickling our collective funny bone. Yes, a world premiere, a never-seen-before tale on the stage of the Arizona Theatre Company, to which we are to be most fortunate witnesses.

And it was to involve the master of all sleuths himself: Sherlock Holmes.

For the final show of their 50th-anniversary season, the season that almost wasn't, ATC has summoned playwright Jeffrey Hatcher to create a piece that would be a fitting conclusion for artistic director David Ira Goldstein's 26-year tenure as leader of that estimable theater pack. Goldstein has been trying to leave ATC for a few years, but when it was determined a couple of years ago that business management issues had left the group in desperate financial distress, the board of directors pled with Goldstein to stay on until they could devise some strategy to stay afloat. He agreed. (Although he was sick to death of driving up and back to Phoenix, where ATC also performs its full season of plays.)

But this is it, for real. He said for his swansong he wanted to do a show with one of his favorite playwrights, with whom he has worked numerous times here. Hatcher's work, seen onstage across the country as well as on TV and in film, has been commissioned before by ATC, and it seems he is a whiz at conjuring up a Sherlock story Arthur Conan Doyle himself would be impressed with. Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club was commissioned by and presented at ATC, and his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Ten Chimneys also premiered at ATC.

Goldstein wanted another Sherlock story. But there was a hitch. Sherlock was dead. He'd reportedly been killed in a showdown with his dastardly enemy, Professor Moriarty, several years earlier. Never mind, Hatcher said, let me have a think.

So, he did. He came up with Holmes & Watson, a wonderfully fashioned tale both madly teasing and totally entertaining. And in the hands of Goldstein, we get a grand journey that arrives at a wicked destination. And we are most willing passengers.

The set-up is this: Dr. John Watson (R. Hamilton Wright), Holmes' always faithful sidekick and witness to the master sleuth's uncanny expertise, has been informed that there are being held three prisoners in an asylum, all claiming to be Sherlock Holmes. His services are requested to help sort out this mystery, to try to determine which of the three (James Michael Reilly, Noah Racey and Remi Sandri) is the real Sherlock, if indeed one of them is Holmes at all. He's supposed to be dead, after all.

So, Watson arrives on the island housing this asylum, having been tossed by violent seas in the craft provided him. He meets the asylum's chief, a Dr. Evans (Philip Goodwin), and they discuss the layout of the asylum, its staff, and the three problematic inmates.

Of course, particulars of the story cannot be revealed. But be assured that you will be scratching your head, squinting your eyes and furrowing your brow in thought, and be utterly surprised and delighted at the unfolding of events as they turn and twist.

Hatcher and Goldstein make a great team. Their previous work together shows. Hatcher creates a smart story, carrying us down seeming deadends only to discover they make sharp turns leading us to new enigmas. This skill is perfectly complemented by Goldstein's ability to know how to help his actors negotiate those turns and obfuscate what we might think obvious, and to encourage them to discover the comic gems that Hatcher has so skillfully included.

The entire cast is a good one, with some members playing multiple characters. Stephen D'Ambrose plays the orderly and a few other characters at the asylum. Carrie Paff is the stern, downright frightening matron of the institution. She says little. Her mere stature and bearing is information enough, and she makes the role pricelessly comic.

Scenic designer John Ezell gives us a gothically grand asylum, specifically the great room, with doors and stairways and trap doors leading to the inmates' rooms and other parts of the building. Don Darnutzer's lighting provides the ominous lightning flashes and creates an altogether spooky space even when nature is keeping quiet. Brian Jerome Peterson, sound designer, does his job well, particularly delivering an original score composed by Roberta Carlson. Jeffrey Elias Teeter provides the projections that places us in the path of an oncoming train, on stormy seas and in actions remembered.

What fun. And our genuine entertainment is an excellent way to say farewell to a dedicated man of the theater. Bravo!

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