July is filled with murder, music and mayhem at Peninsula Players. The murder and mayhem are limited to the stage, except for a few Nerf wars among company members. The music, however, flows from the rehearsal hall in preparation for the lively comedy, “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
The number of company members grew by 10 when actors, singers, dancers, a director and a musical director joined our troupe last week. That number will continue to increase when six orchestra members and the full creative team are on site.
While vocals and dance routines are being learned during the day, several members of the cast are also on stage at night in the riveting mystery, “Miss Holmes.” Sean Fortunato, Karl Hamilton, Dan Klarer, Tim Monsion and Barbara Robertson are now in what we term “double-duty.” These five actors are stretching their performance muscles by working on a mystery-drama and musical-comedy at the same time.
“Miss Holmes” brings the famous literary characters of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to life. Actors Cassandra Bissell as Sherlock Holmes and Maggie Kettering as Dr. Watson are joined by those mentioned above as well as Neil Brookshire and Erica Elam.
Holmes and Watson are two independent and strong women in 1890s London. Playwright Christopher M. Walsh was first inspired to write “Miss Holmes” when the TV series “Elementary” introduced Sir Arthur Conon Doyle’s Watson as female. Curious to know if our Holmes and Watson were mystery fans, I sat down and chatted with Cassie and Maggie about the following:
Q. Are you a mystery fan? If yes, who are some of your favorite authors? Or series?
Cassie: I am a fan of the great Agatha Christie. But I am also a fan of the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series by Anne Perry.
Maggie: I am a huge mystery fan! I’ve read all the Agatha Christies, the Maisie Dobbs series, and Ian Rankin is a contemporary favorite – he writes John Rebus. Some other favorites: “Rebecca” (Daphne DuMaurier), “The Daughter of Time” (Josephine They), and “The Name of the Rose,” (Umberto Eco).
Q. What books are on your nightstand?
Cassie: At the moment, the only book I’m allowed to look at is my script. But the last two books I read were “The Little Friend” by Donna Tartt and John Muir’s “Wilderness Essays,” which, incidentally, was a gift from my co-star Maggie. I am a big fan of Donna Tartt. Although her novels do not strictly fall into the “mystery” category, she is quite masterful at suspense.
Q. What appealed to you working on “Miss Holmes?”
Cassie: I grew up watching Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes on PBS Mystery with my dad, and we are both huge fans. It is a delightful surprise to take on a character that I never thought would be available to me due to my gender. There are personality traits fundamental to Sherlock rarely given to female characters: a quality of somewhat clinical precision, a lack of emotion, a social ineptitude that is justified by a razor-sharp mind and a life driven by purpose that has absolutely nothing to with romantic relationships.
Q. How is Dr. Watson representative of the time period she lives in?
Maggie: The Edwardian age was the era of “The New Woman,” and women were buckling against the existing social norms of femininity. Watson takes advantage of the education and opportunities newly available. Historically, Margaret Todd was one of the first women to practice medicine in England and also wrote novels – Watson is cut from this same cloth.
Q. How do Holmes and Watson become fast friends?
Maggie: Both women are rebelling against the society in which they find themselves and find a kinship in that commonality.
Cassie: At a time in which most women are not independent and do not exercise their intellectual muscles outside the sphere of domesticity and culture, Holmes and Watson find a kindred spirit in one another through a shared interest in helping women who cannot otherwise help themselves, often resulting in activity that is dangerous, and for them, exhilarating. They are both taken with one another’s intelligence, but perhaps more importantly, what they each decide to DO with that intelligence.
Q. Is Walsh’s Watson similar or different from that of Doyle’s?
Maggie: Very similar…. she just happens to be a woman. And I think that is what is brilliant about Chris’ play – by just changing these characters to be women, their needs must change but are unchanged at the same time.
Q. What drives Sherlock?
Cassie: Ultimately, she is driven to help those who are not heard and cannot be helped through the “customary means,” i.e. women whose victimization cannot, or will not, be understood or seen in a culture where men run all formal institutions.
Q. Doyle expressed Sherlock Holmes’ thoughts on Dr. Watson with the following quote: “It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light.” How is Walsh’s Watson different?
Maggie: Watson is – as he was in Doyle’s stories – very intelligent, but no one is as intelligent as Holmes (except perhaps Mycroft). So, Watson serves as a foil, just a bit slower than Holmes, which forces Holmes to clarify details, and in doing so, allows Holmes to see things clearly.
Q. What insights has director Elizabeth Margolius given the cast about the production?
Cassie: Elizabeth has brought us the gift of movement as a means to direct the eye of our audience, which is a vital tool for a mystery, in which we need to make sure certain things land as well as to keep them questioning every step of the way.
Maggie: Elizabeth has such a gift with stage pictures – she’s been really helpful in constantly reminding us this is a story for an audience, and better yet – a mystery! So, finding places to really punch the suspicious odds and ends, and play the danger and intrigue. It’s a really fun room to work inside!
Q: What are five plays that you’ll never forget and why?
Maggie: “Les Misérables” was the first show I ever saw on Broadway. I was 14 and was blown away at the scope of it. I’ve never seen it since, and it will always live like that in my memory. I saw “Measure for Measure” at the Globe with Mark Rylance, and it has been my favorite Shakespeare ever since. Bill Ball’s “Taming of the Shrew” is the only satisfactory Shrew I have ever seen, and it’s ingenious. “Tuesday,” a piece by Jewel Walker, which is so simple in its story telling and shows how humanity is universal. “Outside Mullingar,” at Peninsula Players – I think that play is a piece of art, and I was really honored to be a part of it.
Cassie: “Cats,” Broadway tour in Chicago. My mother took me for my 10th birthday. It was the “biggest” production I’d ever seen at that point in my life. And although we are not huge musical fans, we are huge fans of the feline, so it was quite a treat. “Angels in America” when it was first on Broadway. My mother took me when I was in high school and it was my first Broadway show. It had all that makes great theater great – entertainment and spectacle, but with a huge healthy dose of difficult subject matter to make you think and question your world.
It’s not a play exactly, but I got to see Marcel Marceau perform mime in London, and it was the most magical thing I’ve ever witnessed. Using only his own body, he could make you see entire worlds that weren’t there, and tell stories full of humor and heartbreak without a single spoken word.
“Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” Irish Classical Theatre Co., Buffalo, New York. It was my first professional role. (I was a senior in high school.) “The Cherry Orchard,” University of Chicago. My director, Boris Wolfson, who is Russian, brought a sensibility to the whole process that made me “get” and consequently fall in love with Chekhov. “Proof,” Peninsula Players. I have experienced other characters since that I have perhaps identified with as much or more, but in 2003, when I got to play Catherine in “Proof,” I had never walked into a role feeling so confident of who a character was and such a sure knowledge of the world that created her.
Q: What was the best advice you ever received about acting?
“Miss Holmes” is on stage through July 22 and playwright Christopher M. Walsh will join the cast and creative team for a post-show discussion Saturday, July 14. Another post-discussion will be held with the cast Tuesday, July 10. If you enjoy pre-show seminars, Dr. Christopher Chan will host a discussion on the roles of female characters in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes canon starting in the theater at 6:30 pm Saturday, July 21.
For more information on post-show discussion, pre-show seminars or tickets to “Miss Holmes” visit www.peninsulaplayers.com or call the Box Office at (920) 868-3287. I hope to see you by the bay, where the sun sets, the curtain rises and the stars shine!