Alternative histories are a fun subset of speculative fiction made up of asking the question “What if…?” Bill Daniel’s play “Holmes vs. Holmes” is one of those literary and historical what-ifs that grabs the attention. He posits what would have happened if Chicago’s notorious serial killer of the late nineteenth century, H.H. Holmes, had been confronted with the brilliant deductive mind of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional hero, Sherlock Holmes.
Detective Holmes (T. Isaac Sherman) is on a three-year hiatus from his work in London and so, naturally, he is in Chicago for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. This puts him in place to confront the murderous Holmes (portrayed by the playwright) on his home turf. That struggle of one brilliant mind to top another is what the audience comes to see.
Within any alternate history one has to expect some changes to the timeline, and Daniel’s script plays fast and loose with the life events of H.H. Holmes. That is okay within the conceit that this isn’t what really happened. However, it is best noted that this play, while enjoyable as a piece on its own, is unlikely to please hardcore history buffs or purist Doyle fans. It deviates from the historical record majorly, long before Sherman’s Holmes comes on the scene, and Sherlock’s end of the investigation isn’t really a major part of the play, never allowing us to revel in the game and its afoot-ness.
But, if you are not a diehard or a pedant, there is still much to admire here. Director Orion Couling’s staging is a thing of beauty: a surreal world in which ghosts linger, long-distance communications are portrayed in colorfully lighted silhouette, and The Statue of the Republic is ever-present in the character of Lady Columbia (Genevieve Lally-Knuth) who silently witnesses and mourns each grisly death.
Some speculative alterations to the timeline are quite fun. I particularly enjoy the implication that murderer Holmes, under the tutelage of Professor Moriarty (Richard Eisloeffel), is also Jack the Ripper in London. Asking “What if…?” is intriguing. Answering the question can be entertaining. (Christopher Kidder-Mostrom)
E.D.G.E. Theatre at the Heartland Studio Theatre, 7016 North Glenwood, edgeoforion.com, $22. Through November 29.