Mickey Mouse. Dracula. Superman.
There’s a slim pantheon of fictional characters whom you can truly call legendary, known by audiences all over the world. Among these famous few: a pair of super sleuths renowned for their investigative abilities, unmitigated courage and steadfast friendship.
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, the creations of British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, have starred in many stories beyond Doyle’s originals and appeared in countless adaptations to stage and screen. Now, they’re the focus of Austin Playhouse's season-opening show, “Holmes and Watson,” which opened Sept. 6 and runs through Sept. 29.
We spoke to director Don Toner, who's also Austin Playhouse’s producing artistic director, about the show to find out what makes this version of the famed detective duo different from other iterations.
American-Statesman: This isn’t the first Sherlock Holmes story that you’ve staged at Austin Playhouse. What is it about the character — and his colleague, Dr. Watson — that inspires you to keep returning to him?
Don Toner: Mysteries are great drama, and with Holmes and Watson, you get a great mystery with these iconic characters that have fascinated us for 100 years. It's always fun for the audience to go in thinking they know these characters and then be surprised by how each playwright approaches the classic stories. At the heart is this compelling anti-hero and his sympathetic partner — this strong friendship that's the core of their relationship keeps audiences rooting for them. Coupling these compelling characters with a fast-paced mystery is just irresistible.
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What differentiates this play from other versions of Holmes and Watson (including previous productions at Austin Playhouse and recent popular portrayals of the characters, like TV's "Sherlock" and "Elementary")?
This is a Sherlock story that we've never heard. We've done two previous productions that feature Holmes and Watson: “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily” by Katie Forgette and “Baskerville” by Ken Ludwig. “The Game's Afoot,” also by Ludwig, featured William Gillette as a character — the first stage actor to tackle the great detective. In each of those plays, Jason Newman played the Sherlock character. This one offers an opportunity for three of our other company members — Huck Huckaby, Rick Roemer and Scott Shipman — to tackle the role.
“Holmes and Watson” is by Jeffrey Hatcher, and while it has some comedy, it's much more of a mystery/thriller. The play runs without intermission, so once it takes off, the audience is in the world until the mystery is solved. This play also has more red herrings and plot twists than our previous productions. You're never really sure who to trust until the final reveal. The mystery at the heart of this story is "Who is the real Sherlock?" and you have three compelling possibilities who all try to convince us their version of the truth is correct. Which is quite different from our previous productions and other pop culture adaptations. The audience has three very different men all claiming to be Holmes, and it's up to Watson to solve the mystery.
This story takes place after Holmes' "death" at Reichenbach Falls and before he has revealed his survival to Watson. Does this mean that Watson is more of the central focus of the story than Holmes himself?
Watson, played by David Stahl, and Dr. Evans, the asylum director played by Toby Minor, are our guides through this story. Watson questions each potential Holmes about the events at Reichenbach to try to find the real Sherlock. It's revealed that Watson has spent three years following up on leads by people who think they've spotted Sherlock. So by the time he enters the asylum to meet our three candidates, he's pretty jaded by the process of debunking imposters.
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