The University of Wisconsin Madison’s Department of Theatre and Drama wrapped up a successful first run of their new production, “Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson, APT. 2B,” on Aug. 6.
Endlessly endearing and hilarious, this exciting reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved stories swaps the genders of classic characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson and thrusts them into a contemporary, post-COVID world.
“Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson, APT. 2B”, guest directed by Emily Rollie and written by award-winning playwright Kate Hamill, sees the American Dr. Joan Watson (Nora Wondra) move to London in the year 2021, directionless in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When touring an apartment owned by the strungout Mrs. Hudson (Megan Tennessen), she meets the brilliant and eccentric Ms. Sherlock Holmes (Sophia Schmidt). The two become roommates destined to embark on many mysteries, aided by the somewhat dim Inspector Lestrade (Nicky Chier). As their odd friendship blossoms, the two cross paths with the alluring Irene Adler (Megan Tennessen) as well as a mysterious figure who seems to be secretly pulling the strings.
The play is the first in a series of four featuring female playwrights to be produced by the university theatre program throughout the 2023-24 season. As per the production’s playbill, Hamill’s work “celebrates theatricality, often features absurdity, and closely examines social and gender issues.” These themes are front-and-center throughout the play.
Ms. Holmes and Ms. Watson remain utterly true to the spirit of the original characters, so much so that one might forget that these are different versions of the characters at all. However, that’s not to say that this alteration doesn’t change the story in fresh and intriguing ways.
While Sherlock and Watson are now women, the other characters remain untouched. Archetypal femme fatale Irene Addler, fawned after by Sherlock in the original novels, remains a woman. This casts the relationship between her and Ms. Sherlock in a new, more queer light.
This choice also transforms two characters — who in the novels were firmly rooted in the misogynistic culture of the 19th century — into a pair of empowered, modern women.
“There's something about specifically making Sherlock Holmes a woman that sort of flips everything on its head,” Schmidt told The Daily Cardinal. “When you make a misogynistic male character into a woman, it has weight… there aren’t many female characters that have the level of power Sherlock Holmes has in this fictional universe without it being a sexual power.”
Schmidt’s exceptional performance in the role truly capitalizes on this, fully embodying the captivating presence of Sherlock on stage with energetic bouts of rapier-flourishing and witty repartee. And, does so without overshadowing fellow castmates.
Of course, the characters’ gender-swap isn’t the only update which Hamill makes to the classic material. This version of Sherlock Holmes takes place in a post-pandemic 2021, and although COVID-19 isn’t a frequent focus of the story, its ghostly presence continues to haunt apartment 2B. Most characters periodically reference the pandemic, though rarely engage with it directly.
That is, with the exception of Dr. Joan Watson.
Light spoilers ahead.
Throughout the play, Watson appears troubled and is unable to stomach others’ pain despite being a physician. It’s eventually revealed in a monologue delivered by Watson that the stress and anxiety of working during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic left her traumatized. This is what led Watson to give up on medicine and move to London for a new start.
This monologue was the highlight of a skilled performance delivered by Wondra, and it’s one which invites the audience to reflect on one of the most uncertain and frightening periods in recent memory.
“I know that when I do that monologue, everybody knows what I'm talking about. There's no question. They can imagine it, they can see it; they’ve seen the news and they’ve read the articles,” Wondra said. “That's a huge part that can help people relate to Watson's character.”
The rest of the cast gave phenomenal performances as well. Megan Tennessen had the daunting task of juggling multiple distinct characters throughout the play’s duration. Tennessen succeeded with apparent ease, aided by a multitude of seamless costume and makeup changes. When Tennessen first switched from playing Mrs. Hudson to Lucy Drebber — one of her many roles — I was convinced that a different actor had taken the stage.
Likewise, Nicky Chier, who also plays multiple characters, was a clear delight for the audience. Chier’s performance as Inspector Lestrade was particularly entertaining. Chier’s impeccable comedic timing, gracefully over-the-top performance and clear vocal talent really stood out.
“Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson, APT. 2B” is a fresh and intelligent play which transforms a familiar premise into something exhilarating and new, aided by an exceptionally talented cast. Props must also be given to the production team, who assembled some truly exceptional lighting, soundwork and costume design for this production as well as a cleverly intricate set. I can’t recommend enough that you see this play when it picks up again in September.
“It's just so fun, and there are so many twists. There's also so many jokes. So many, it's hard to catch all of them…and for freshmen, I think it's a good, light-hearted first place to introduce yourself to the theatre department,” Wondra said.
“What I would say to people who are even moderately interested in theater is to give it a chance, especially if you haven't been involved in theater before college,” Schmidt said. “It's not too late to explore your interests.”
“Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson, APT. 2B” returns to the Ronald E. Mitchell Theatre on September 14th. Go to the Campus Arts Ticketing website to reserve your seat.
Noah Fellinger is the Arts Editor for The Daily Cardinal. He has covered new film and television releases, labor issues in the performing arts, and has written analysis of the relationship between art and contemporary politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Noah_Fellinger.