The Playhouse’s Holmes & Watson delivers a suspense story that keeps audiences guessing

By MARRIE STONE

You needn’t be a Sherlock Holmes aficionado to appreciate Laguna Playhouse’s production of Holmes & Watson. Directed by the Playhouse’s Artistic Director David Ellenstein and written by Jeffrey Hatcher, this iteration of the British classic will both satisfy Doyle loyalists and lure in newcomers for a ride that’s been described as “fast-paced” and “thrilling.”

“Hatcher is such an accomplished and skillful playwright,” Ellenstein said. “His specialty is exactly this genre – so this play bristles with intrigue, humor and verve. It truly captures the Holmesian style and mystery.”

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Photos by Jason Niedle/Tethos

Richard Baird stars in the Laguna Playhouse production of “Holmes & Watson” by Jeffrey Hatcher, directed by David Ellenstein and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse

Devoted Holmes’ fans may recall Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1893 short story “The Final Problem,” wherein Holmes and criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty appear to have fallen to their deaths. But have they?

Holmes & Watson picks up in an asylum on an island off the coast of Scotland in the center of a terrible storm. A telegram has arrived informing Dr. Watson that three men have come forward, each claiming to be Sherlock Holmes. Watson, Holmes’ famous sidekick, must take up the case. It’s anything but elementary.

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(L-R) Matt Koenig, Matthew Floyd Miller, Mike Peebler, Alice Sherman, Christopher M. Williams, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper and Richard Baird star in the Laguna Playhouse production of “Holmes & Watson”

“It starts with this kind of Penny Dreadful feel,” said Richard Baird, who plays the role of Watson. “What the heck is going on? Where are we? A lot of this piece is charting the relationship between Watson and Dr. Evans, who are trying to crack this case together.”

Dr. Evans, played by Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, is a character wholly invented by Hatcher. He’s the presiding doctor on this remote island asylum. “Actors spend a lot of time thinking about what they’re communicating – not just to their colleagues and stage partners, but to the audience,” Mongiardo-Cooper said. “What do they want to let out, who is good or evil, who isn’t whom they seem to be? These are all questions you want everyone to be asking themselves the whole time. That’s a delightful challenge as an actor. Deciding how much you want to share and what secrets you keep.” He recommends seeing the play a second time to appreciate all the hidden clues.

Audiences might also benefit from a second viewing to fully appreciate the gorgeous set design that places us in the center of an asylum and embraces the Victoria era. “Everybody is doing enormously beautiful work on this,” said Mongiardo-Cooper. “It’s gripping to watch actors at their most dexterous get that across to an audience. You can feel the energy in the room.”

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Mike Peebler (top) and Christopher M. Williams

For those unfamiliar with the Sherlock Holmes canon, and who might worry they’ll be lost, fear not. “You can absolutely jump into this as a self-contained play,” Mongiardo-Cooper added. “It doesn’t hurt to have seen or read Sherlock. The more familiar you are, the more little Easter eggs will be there for you.” Even those who haven’t read Doyle likely know the mystery structure, which has been disseminated down through the ages in various forms. For certain generations, it looks like Murder on the Orient Express, Encyclopedia Brown, Columbo, or Murder She Wrote and House.

“Before I directed this play, I was not a huge Sherlock Holmes enthusiast, but the play led me to read the Conan Doyle source material and I gained a new understanding for the lasting appeal of the detective,” Ellenstein said. “These stories are extremely well written. I became captivated by the detail and specificity of the character and literary style. I became a Sherlock fan. There is a reason Mr. Holmes endures through all sorts of adaptations and across time.”

While mystery is at the center of this production, there’s still that signature Holmesian humor as well. “This has a wonderful dry sense of humor that runs through it,” Baird said. “It also really is a thrilling mystery. People’s lives are at stake and the stakes are very high. And it’s quick. The play only runs about 80 minutes with no intermission, so it doesn’t give the audience a chance to talk to each other and keeps you right inside the mystery until it’s over.”

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(L-R) Richard Baird, Mike Peebler and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper

Baird also appreciates the sharp intellect that Watson brings in this iteration. “In many of the adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, particularly the ones on television and film, past Watsons were sputtering satellites to Sherlock’s genius. They made Watson kind of silly. One thing Doyle did, and Hatcher has done in this script, is something we’ve discussed in great detail. Watson is a military surgeon. He’s around this incredible genius all the time so we forget how intelligent he is. Holmes is working on a whole other level, but that doesn’t mean Watson isn’t an extremely smart man. This time, we get to watch him try to solve the case to find his friend.”

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“The idea of a new production of Holmes & Watson at Laguna Playhouse fills me with eager anticipation,” Ellenstein said. “I am so excited by the exemplary cast we have assembled and the amazing design plans that will lift this play to its full potential. I believe Laguna Playhouse audiences are going to have a great time with this one.”

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(L-R) Matthew Floyd Miller, Richard Baird and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper

Holmes & Watson runs through Sunday, June 16. Performances will be Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. There will be added performances on Thursday, June 6 at 2 p.m. and Tuesday, June 11 at 7:30 p.m. There will be no performance on Sunday, June 16 at 5:30 p.m. There will be a post-show talkback following the Friday, June 7 performance.

Tickets range from $45-$84. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit their website by clicking here.

Laguna Playhouse is located at 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

For more information, visit https://lagunaplayhouse.com.


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