Despite some pandemic restrictions, live theater is returning to Oak Park and River Forest High School at last. Miss Holmes has two more performances remaining this weekend in the Little Theater.
I have long admired our community’s support of the high school theater program. Long after their students have graduated, parents often continue attending OPRF shows, especially the big spring musicals. I know people have really missed the typically top-notch live student productions during the seemingly endless COVID era.
Now they’re back, with pandemic restrictions carefully observed. Audience members are seated 3 feet apart. Masks covering both mouth and nose must be worn at all times.
All the performers wear masks which, of course, prevent one from seeing the actors’ facial expressions. But each one has a microphone so none of the lines ever seem garbled or difficult to understand. The cast does a fine job with all of it.
A talented, lively multiracial cast of 12 present a delightful take on the old Sherlock Holmes mysteries, titled Miss Holmes. The imaginative 2016 play ventures into gender-bending territory while still being sensitive and respectful to the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), the British writer and physician who created Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Chicago actor and playwright Christopher M. Walsh wrote the smart two-act drama, a period piece set in late Victorian England. The plot centers on Miss Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Dorothy Watson, female versions of Doyle’s iconic detective and loyal friend.
This wonderfully staged, fast-paced production is directed by James Bell. The actors deliver solid performances. Some of the ensemble, such as Wyllow Oladipo, even tackle multiple roles.
In addition to the fine performances, there is glorious scenic design. Holmes’ cozy, cluttered parlor at 221B Baker Street, has red walls and a flickering fireplace. A foggy, gas-lit street generates a striking, ominous image during several chases. The scenic artist is Charlotte Boultinghouse.
The late 19th century was a time when society did not value women who were smart and brave. Both Holmes and Watson have to negotiate the tricky social and political realities of the 1890s. Though the play is set 125 years ago, some of the Victorian norms and limitations most women were forced to endure are still recognizable and not yet completely “history.”
Hannah Zavalkoff gives a relentless and forceful performance as the cunning but frustrated Miss Sherlock Holmes. She seems to be constantly incarcerated for behavior considered not “respectable” for a lady. When we first encounter Miss Holmes, she sports a black eye from a fight in the asylum where her brother has dumped her.
Brigid Barrette plays Dr. Dorothy Watson, a spirited rebel who is struggling to make a difference in the only hospital in London that will hire female doctors. When we first meet her, she is dressed in a blood-spattered apron. She is loyal but often perplexed by her companion. She is more than just a loyal sidekick, serving as a vital buffer between Sherlock and the rest of the world.
Sherlock often comes to the assistance of endangered women, such as newlywed Lizzie Chapman, played by Leah Gerut, third wife of menacing, high-ranking Scotland Yard investigator Thomas Chapman (Georgia Gutierrez), whose previous spouses died mysteriously.
Holmes and Watson, a dynamic pair, emerge immediately as a tribute to every capable woman’s battle against oppression and sexism. Though there are many light moments, both actresses give the characters dignity and intelligence.
There are plenty of twists and turns, in addition to feminist insights. The mystery keeps unraveling.
This is not just some gimmicky spoof with women playing male characters but a captivating story featuring women coping with a very male-dominated society.
Sherlock’s overbearing older brother, Mycroft Holmes, played by Lowell Rindler, is often bailing out his sister while also trying to control her.
Other cast members are Lee Chaoemtiarana, Alyssa Schulz, Gia Reed, Emery Brandhorst, Lizzie Phelan and Simone Arventis.
Delia Ford is the fight choreographer, Greta Kirby the assistant director, and Lucy Mann the stage manager.
Jeffrey Kelly designs the costumes, with Patt Cheney doing hair styles and make-up.
Patrick Ziegler is the master electrician, Sam McDermont the sound designer, and the master carpenter is Jonny Hugh.
Miss Holmes injects fresh life into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic, beloved characters. The entire production is thoughtful and delightful.
See “Miss Holmes,” Friday and Saturday, Oct. 8 and 9, 7 to 9 p.m., in the Little Theater at Oak Park and River Forest High School, 201 N. Scoville. Tickets are $8; $6, students/seniors. Tickets/more: oprfhs.ticketleap.com/miss-holmes.