Who is Sherlock Holmes? Such is the question posed this summer by Jeffrey Hatcher’s play Holmes and Watson, the final production of the Alley Theatre’s 17-18 season, but it’s also the mystery unraveled within the International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Fans have been obsessed with the enigmatic detective since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first set him deerstalking into the world’s collective imagination 130 years ago. In film and television, he and his many contemporary incarnations are more popular than ever. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Houston is getting a cool summer of Sherlock.
But who is Sherlock Holmes and why do we in Houston continue to love him so? This was the mystery I set out to solve with a day devoted to murder, mayhem, and the master detective, ever ready to put the world to right.
The game's afoot
First up, I headed over the Museum District to discover the very dramatic HMNS exhibition unexpectedly had something of an immersive theater feel. Before entering I received a casebook I would need to use along my journey into the dark underbelly of Victorian crime fiction.
This HMNS exhibition contains manuscripts and artifacts of Doyle’s era which delve into the history of Holmes and give insights into Doyle’s influences, including the writings of Edgar Allen Poe and Doyle’s his real life medical training and studies under Dr. Joseph Bell. The majority of the galleries are organized around a new Holmes mystery, written by noted Doyle biographer Daniel Stashower. The guiding narrative invites visitors to help Holmes solve this latest diabolical case.
At times working my way through the exhibition did feel as if I had entered into a role playing theatrical piece. The casebook and displays invited me to attempt some observational exercises, documenting all I saw, solve puzzles and work through a series of problems and experiments. The layout of the galleries gives the impression that Holmes himself was always just a few steps in front of me, in the next room.
One of the most fun parts of the experience was watching kids, ages 5 to 65, diligently and sometimes gleefully filling out their casebooks and working through the steps to solve the mystery. Along the way, the exhibition rather sneakily teaches some Victorian history and forensic science all in the guise of putting us through an audition to become Baker Street Irregulars.
For fans of the latest onscreen versions of the detective, the exhibition presents several displays of props and costumes from the three most popular current incarnations of the mythology: Guy Ritchie’s steampunk Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr., the BBC Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary.
Murder at the theater
Once I felt my observation skills finely honed, I headed over to the Alley to see if I could out deduce Hatcher’s Sherlock, only to find that in the play, it is the good doctor who must play detective.
Holmes and Watson, directed by Mark Shanahan, begins three years after the notorious Reichenbach Falls case, when Holmes and his archenemy Moriarty fell to their deaths. Or did they?
Dr. Watson (Jeremy Webb) is invited to a mysterious island asylum by a seemingly concerned, but perplexed Dr. Evans (Bruce Warren). Three inmates (Jay Sullivan, Dan Domingues, and Chris Hutchison) housed there all claim to be Sherlock Holmes. They all have a different story to tell about what happened that fateful night on the Falls and very different motives for telling their tales to Holmes’s best friend, confidant, and biographer. In turn, Watson must discover who is the real Sherlock Holmes, as danger lurks in every night shadow.
Of course, one of the allures of a good mystery, especially a Holmes play, is seeing if we can keep up with the game and figure out who done it, or in this case who is who, before a Sherlock or Watson explains it all.
In only 90 minutes, Hatcher, director Shanahan, and the cast create enough quick plot turns that audiences members might find themselves dizzy at the final reveals. Near the end, I did want to give my (imaginary) Baker Street Irregular badge a congratulatory polish because I did spot a few, though not all, of those plot twists leading up to the finale.
Whether I half-solved the case thanks to the training the International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes gave me earlier in the day, or it was the years of watching and reading so many versions of the great detective that made me a successful plot sleuth, who, but Holmes, can know.