HOLMES & WATSON Ushers TheatreFEST in with a Bang

There is something diabolically satisfying about watching a good mystery unfold onstage. Smart writing peppered with steely performances, impeccable timing, and a looming sense of uncertainty keeps the audience guessing. And that is just what University Theatre’s production of Holmes & Watson does.

Not to be confused with the abysmal 2018 film of the same name, Jeffrey Hatcher’s play starts several years after Sherlock Holmes supposedly perished at the falls at Reichenbach. Now, three men, all claiming to be Holmes, are confined in an asylum, and there is only one person who can identify which one of the three is the real Holmes.

Dr. Watson, I presume.

Classic mysteries are a part of University Theatre’s DNA. In fact, since the inception of TheatreFEST in the 1990s, North Carolina State’s University Theatre has produced nearly 20 mystery plays during its summer festival. The late John Mcllwee, a longtime Director at University Theatre, relished this type of meticulous storytelling. In fact, University Theatre Assistant Director Mia Self shared with me during an interview in 2019 that his enthusiasm for this genre was contagious.

“It is so easy to say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen Murder She Wrote,’ and lump it all together,” said Self. “But it’s about pulling all these engaging stories of what it is we do, and what motivates people to respond to each other on so many different levels, and that personal attachment to storytelling, and the idea that life is mysterious and there are so many pieces we don’t understand, that I keep finding really surprising.”

And that element of surprise is something Self revels in. Holmes & Watson marks the third TheatreFEST mystery she has directed, following The Hollow (2016) and Go Back for Murder (2019). In this instance, experience, along with her flair for rhythm and language, is unerring.

Of course, having an ominous playground from which the players can seemingly appear and disappear helps. Not surprisingly, Resident Scenic Designer Jayme Mellema’s austere multilevel set, including an impressive revolve, provides ample space for play and subterfuge. Strong technical elements, including Patrick Mathis’ lighting and sound design and Joshua Reaves’ projections, complement Mellema’s work and immerse the audience in this labyrinth.

During intermission, the audience is invited to “vote” on which one of the characters (if any) is the real Sherlock Holmes. On opening night, only five people guessed correctly, which is a testament to some strong performances by a very convincing and conspiring ensemble led by Gus Allen as Dr. Watson.

Holmes & Watson is the first production of several TheatreFEST events, culminating with the National Women’s Theatre Festival at the end of the month. University Theatre’s next show, Title of Show, opens this week.  

Holmes & Watson runs through Sunday, June 11 at University Theatre. For more information about TheatreFEST visit https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/events-calendar/theatrefest/.

This Saturday, from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., University Theatre will host an open house. Beltline to Broadway, along with 18 theater producers and presenters, will be participating.

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