The homicide rate is very high on St. Paul's stages right now.
In addition to a pair of murders occurring nightly at History Theatre's "Glensheen," there's trouble afoot a few blocks away at Park Square Theatre's "Holmes and Watson," a world premiere where a precise body count is trickier to determine (both plays are by Jeffrey Hatcher, whose pen is dastardlier than his sword).
"Holmes" is set in a creepy stone building that Dr. Frankenstein would have considered a turnkey property but that, in the play, is being used as an asylum. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Dr. Watson has been summoned to the fortress to make a determination: Which of the three inmates who claim to be Sherlock Holmes (played by Pearce Bunting, Paul de Cordova and Peter Simmons) is the real deal?
It's no surprise Hatcher is the real deal. A veteran of puzzling plays — and of the mysteries Park Square stages each summer — "devious" is his middle name. He starts with the murder-friendly setting, designed by Erik Paulson and augmented by sound designer Montana Johnson and lighting designer Mary Shabatura's stirring thunderstorm effects.
Hatcher's taut, intermission-free play is always in full control. If, for instance, a character seems not quite right, you should think about that because it's deliberate (at least two of the Holmeses have to be fake, obviously). If a bit of dialogue hits your ear wrong, that's also a clue. Heck, even the creaking staircase and sound of a rusty key turning in a lock might mean something. Long story short: There's some M. Night Shyamalan-style head-messing going on in "Holmes and Watson," so you should be suspicious of everything.
Speaking of Shyamalan, there's a pleasingly cinematic quality to "Holmes and Watson," which includes "flashbacks" to events in Conan Doyle's classic "The Final Problem," where Holmes supposedly died in a battle with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Inventively staged, mostly in silhouette, by Michael Evan Haney, they augment the general atmosphere of entertaining menace.
It's tricky to talk about the cast without giving away secrets but Bunting and Daniel Petzold (Dr. Evans) stand out. Bunting plays one of the Sherlock wannabes as a straitjacketed unfortunate who's either a raving madman, a frustrated detective or both. And Petzold's condescending officiousness, as the asylum's doctor, brings out the play's dry wit, especially when Hatcher reveals all in the final moments.
I'm no Holmes expert but "Holmes and Watson" feels very much like something Conan Doyle could have written if he had been willing to shake things up by giving Watson a temporary promotion. It's fun seeing him in the driver's seat for a change. But, in a play that might more accurately be called "Holmes and Holmes and Holmes and Watson," it's even more fun to see him struggling to deal with his friend in triplicate.
'Holmes and Watson'
Who: By Jeffrey Hatcher. Directed by Michael Evan Haney.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Aug. 21.
Where: Park Square Theatre, 20 W. 7th Place, St. Paul.
Protocol: Masks required.
Tickets: $27-$55, 651-291-7005 or parksquaretheatre.org.