Shivering Sherlock! Holmes and Watson are bringing their crime-solving brainiac act to St. Paul — again — this time during an action-packed, fin-de-siècle Winter Carnival.
“Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders” is a new production adapted by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher from St. Paul historian Larry Millett’s novel of the same name. Millett has set other books from his Holmes series in Minnesota, but this is the first one adapted for live performance.
Park Square has staged three previous summertime Sherlock shows, two starring a returning Steve Hendrickson as Holmes and Bob Davis as Watson, but this is the first one featuring familiar hometown names and locales.
“Larry said we could choose any of the books, and I picked this one because it was the spookiest and had the best imagery,” Hatcher said. “But aside from the gothic, gory melodrama, it also seemed most anchored in St. Paul. People will get a frisson when they say, ‘He took a left on 7th Street.’ ”
Railroad titan James J. Hill calls for the famed London duo after a rich young man disappears just before he is to be married to a woman who has ominously already ditched her bridal gown. A grisly discovery in the Ice Palace leads finally to a nighttime chase across the dangerously thawing river in pursuit of the killer.
“On stage you have to do it with lights-on/lights-off, a bit of fog, the sound of ice cracking from the cutters that would be out, and water running beneath the ice,” Hatcher said. “It should be really nifty.”
Directed by Peter Moore, the play stars two longtime acting buddies as familiar with their roles as Holmes was with his pipe and deerstalker — Hendrickson and Davis, whom Hatcher also knows well.
“It’s fun to tailor work to friends. You know what they’re good at,” Hatcher said. “Steve can project a sadness or ruefulness with just a word. When someone comments to Holmes about his losses, all he says is, ‘ ’Tis.’ Steve gets a lot of mileage out of that. Bob can mutter a wisecrack under his breath or put on a wounded-puppy-dog quality that is very Watson-like.”
Hatcher has some thoughts on why people never seem to tire of Holmes and Watson, no matter what art form they are conjured in. “The character was brilliantly conceived as a deducing machine. ‘I’m a brain,’ he tells Watson, ‘that rests on an appendix.’ But Doyle left a nice big crack in Holmes, an empty space, so we can keep adapting him, give him a different shading without contradicting the original.”
In the teens and 1920s, Hatcher said, William Gillette played him with stern melodrama. In the World War II ’40s, Basil Rathbone had an “England against the world” approach. In the ’80s, Jeremy Brett played him in a state of near-psychotic nervous breakdown. And Benedict Cumberbatch of the current BBC series is “the cool, Asperger-y Holmes, with that inability to connect on a human level.”
He also sees St. Paul as a better setting for the story than its twin would be.
“Everyone loves to inhabit that Victorian-Edwardian era of foggy London, and St. Paul is most like London — a river town with twisty streets, a dark town. Minneapolis isn’t dark like St. Paul. That Scandinavian desire for cleanliness, I guess.”