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Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders
Park Square Theatre

Also see Arty's reviews of Choir Boy, You Can't Take It with You, and Damn Yankees


Bob Davis, Tamara Clark, and Neal Hazard
Over the past decade, Park Square Theatre has frequently offered a Sherlock Holmes or an Agatha Christie play to fill the summer slot on its proscenium stage. Something fun and laden with surprises, while keeping the audience thinking. This year, Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders fills the bill. The world premiere play is by Twin Cities-based playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, based on Larry Millet's novel. The story not only treats its audience to a well-loved literary hero, but is set in our own St. Paul, during the Winter Carnival of 1896, allowing for many jests regarding life in our capital city, the frigid weather, Scandinavian heritage, and the Winter Carnival itself.

Icing on the cake seemed to be the return of actor Steve Hendrickson to play Sherlock Holmes, having winningly portrayed the detective at Park Square in 2010 and 2013. Unfortunately, Hendrickson suffered an aneurism just before opening night. Word is that he is doing well and hopes to step back into the role during the show's run. On opening night, the role of Holmes was ably filled by director Peter Moore, who fortunately has the lean, angular look and crisp diction one expects in their Sherlock, and "critically" nicely fits into the costumes.

The play opens with Holmes and his essential partner in sleuthing, Dr. John Watson, just finishing a U.S. tour in Chicago, preparing to travel to New York for their trip back to England. A distraught young woman at the train station captures Watson's attention. He picks up the out-of-town newspaper she had been reading, folded to reveal a news item about the disappearance of a young man from a prominent family, shortly before he was to be wed to the daughter of another prominent family. The young man was last seen on the grounds of the Ice Palace being prepared for the opening of the annual Winter Carnival in St. Paul. Before you can say "Swedish smorgasbord," Holmes, with Watson in tow, changes their destination from New York to Minnesota, determined that he shall not leave the United States without having solved a notable case.

In St. Paul, Holmes gets right to work, encountering a number of characters, any one of which may be a suspect in the disappearance and presumed murder of Jonathan Upton. These include an aquavit-drinking Swedish watchman on the Winter Carnival grounds; a sensitive Italian ice sculptor; a surly Irish chief of police (Millet and Hatcher capture well the mix of ethnicities that formed St. Paul's immigrant past); Michael Riley, foreman of the Ice Palace construction; Jonathan's strong-willed fiancée Laura Forbes; his despairing father George; Laura's imperious father Commodore Forbes and her bon vivant brother Freddie; a murderous pickpocket named Billy Bouquet; news reporter George Pyle, keen to land a story with big headlines; and Shadwell Rafferty, proprietor and barkeeper at the Hotel Ryan where Holmes and Watson are lodged; as well as an amateur detective who is also pursuing the case of Jonathan's disappearance.

Those are the players, and to tell more would spoil the fun. Suffice to say, there are generous servings of false leads, mistaken identities, plot twists, double dealings, mysterious unsigned notes, smoking pistols, sharpened knives, and witty repartee. Playwright Hatcher, with a tip of the hat to novelist Millet, has created a dandy joy ride that keeps the audience guessing not only who did it, but why and how ... and making sure that the pleasure of the game is drawn out to the very end, with every scene adding a piece to the puzzle, but nothing tipping the author's hand. The sharp dialogue varies to sound like the genuine voice of each character—no two characters have the same speech pattern or inflection, a sign of both skillful writing and adept direction.

The cast is strong from top to bottom. Of course, I did not see the esteemed Mr. Hendrickson recreate his much praised Sherlock Holmes. One can only suppose that what is a very good production would be a great one with Mr. Hendrickson wearing the deerstalker. None the less, director Peter Moore (on book, though with only fleeting glances at the pages on opening night) presents a Holmes with quick wit, impetuous energy, and sophistication, and plays well off his Dr. Watson and the rest of the cast. As for Watson, Bob Davis, also returning after two previous turns in the part, walks a fine balance between admiration for and frustration with his Holmes, glad to take a secondary role in the risky business of solving crimes, and quick with the snappy rejoinders.

E.J. Subkoviak does impressive work as Shadwell Rafferty, bartender/hotelier/detective, come to St. Paul by way of Boston. Shad is a fount of sly humor, able to remain calm in the face of a dilemma, and can hold his own in matching wits with Sherlock himself, but he also reveals a deeply emotional side, loyal and protective. James Cada succeeds in giving life to three very different men: powerful Commodore Forbes, corrupt and bullying police chief O'Conner, and night watchman Lars Melander, whose two goals are to stay away from trouble and stay near his bottle. Tamara Clark breathes ambition and a love of the hunt into intrepid reporter Pyle, and Jason Rojas scores as an overly jocular Freddie Forbes.

The set consists of a large arch above the proscenium, reminding us that it is 1896 and that we are in St. Paul, beneath which elements are brought in and out to constitute the Ice Palace site, the hotel barroom, and the many other spots where the story plays out. Projections on the rear wall effectively enhance the minimal scenic elements to create a clear sense of locale. Costumes are pitch perfect for the characters and their era, and lighting is used to underscore the sense of tension and danger. The sound design makes significant points with a barking dog, cracking ice, and other plot-related sounds, along with suspense-inducing musical bridges between scenes.

Will Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders appeal to audiences outside Minnesota, not familiar with the Winter Carnival and its Ice Palaces? I believe so. St. Paul actually serves very well as a mystery setting, the frozen city with its industrious populace and dark undertones. The play is well written, and the mystery continuously keeps us guessing. It includes a number of colorful and engaging characters, though aside from Holmes, Watson, and Shad Rafferty, there is not much character development. A bit more attention to that, and paring away a few of the frequent references to the cold might broaden the play's appeal. Perhaps a more fully realized Ice Palace set would give those with no experience of such things a better grasp of it. All in all, a play this much fun and a hero we can't get enough of should certainly be enjoyed beyond the Land of 10,000 Lakes. As for those with the good fortune to be right here in Minnesota, without question, this is a great time at the theater.

Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders continues at Park Square Theatre on the Proscenium Stage through July 26, 2015. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $38.00 – 58.00; under 30 discounted seats, $19.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military $10.00 discount; rush tickets, $25.00, available for unsold seats one hour before performance. A $2.00 facility fee will be added to each ticket. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.

Writer: Jeffrey Archer; Adapted from the novel by: Larry Millet; Director: Peter Moore; Assistant Director: Elena Giannetti; Scenic Designer: Lance Brockman; Costume Designer: Amy B. Kaufman; Lighting Designer: Michael P. KIttel; Sound Designer: Evan Middlesworth; Properties Designer: Sarah Holmberg; Stage Manager: Jamie J. Kranz.

Cast: James Cada (Commodore Forbes/Lars Melander/Chief O'Conner), Stephen Cartmell (Wooldridge/ G. Dante/ Lapham/ Billy Bouquet), Tamara Clark (Miss Pyle), Bob Davis (Dr. John H. Watson), Taylor Harvey (Laura Forbes), Neal Hazard (George Upton/George Washington Thomas), Steve Hendrickson (Sherlock Holmes), Jason Rojas (Freddie Forbes, Michael Riley), E.J. Subkoviak (Shadwell Rafferty).


Photo: Petronella Ytsma


- Arthur Dorman


Also see the season schedule for the Minneapolis - St. Paul region



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