Danville native stands out in ‘Ice Palace Murders’ at Pioneer Playhouse

Published 10:10 pm Wednesday, June 26, 2019


Contributing reviewer

Pioneer Playhouse’s second play of the season brings to life one of the most popular characters in literature and one that is no stranger to the stage: the deerstalker-wearing, pipe-smoking, consulting detective and resident of 221B Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes.

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“Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders,” adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from the novel by Larry Millett, finds Arthur Conan Doyle’s intrepid sleuth in America for a change. About to depart Chicago and return to jolly old England, Holmes (Drew Sutherland) and his constant companion Dr. Watson (Eric Seale) are enticed to stay by an alarming news article. Further west, in Saint Paul, a wealthy man has gone missing on the eve of his wedding. Of course, Holmes suspects foul-play and perhaps a mystery worthy of his time and skill. The game, as he likes to say, is afoot.

Holmes and Watson quickly find themselves as strangers in a strange land in the winter wonderland of Minnesota, where the residents are anticipating the opening of a grand ice palace as part of Saint Paul’s annual Winter Carnival. The festivities are put on hold, though, by the disappearance of the son of one of the palace’s financiers. We’re introduced to a third main character, Shadwell Rafferty (Michael Ross), owner of a local drinking establishment, and a man with more than a few hidden talents, including a penchant for logic and deduction. The trio reluctantly agree to join forces to investigate the events.

Along the way, in typical fashion of Sherlock Holmes stories, we’re introduced to an array of colorful characters, played by the ensemble cast, with actors jumping into multiple roles from scene to scene. A few of the standouts for me were Brittany Polk as a bubbly, energetic local newspaper reporter who gravitates toward Dr. Watson over a shared love of journalism, and Playhouse veteran Patricia Hammond, who steals every scene she’s in as Rafferty’s shotgun toting associate.

Anyone who saw the first play of the season, “Kong’s Night Out,” will appreciate the way Sutherland and Seale change roles in this one, with Sutherland’s Holmes as our hero, while Seale gets to do sidekick duty. But you can argue the star character of the play is the charming and silver-tongued Shadwell Rafferty, played by Danville native Michael Ross. This is Ross’ first professional acting job, although you can’t tell it. He doesn’t get tripped up at all by the lyricism of his character’s fast paced dialogue. And although I’m no expert in dialects, I’m pretty sure he did a great job with the Irish accent. He certainly didn’t come off comical or distracting, and I think that’s probably harder to do that it seems.

Another aspect of “Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders” that really stuck with me was the stage design, specifically the transitions between scenes. Throughout the play, as the energy builds toward the conclusion, the changes in stage dressing and locations become more frequent and frantic, until finally the set almost becomes a character itself.

The play did get a bit confusing at times. There’s a sort of subplot about a secret society called the Muskrat Club that kind of went nowhere, as well as a few character backstories that show up abruptly — and needlessly, maybe — at the end. Maybe a repeat viewing would help me appreciate these scenes. Certainly, anyone who has read the source material would probably have no issues.

“Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders” is a no-brainer for fans of the character, or anyone who enjoys intrigue and mystery and a good atmospheric production.