“Now is the dramatic moment of fate, Watson, when you hear a step upon the stair of someone walking into your life, and you know not whether for good or ill. What does Dr. Mortimer, man of science, ask of Sherlock Holmes, specialist in crime? Come in!”
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Is the Baskerville family cursed? Who, or what, lurks amongst the mist out in the Great Grimpen Mire?
So begins the adventure in The Hound of the Baskervilles, the fifth of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, originally published serially in the Strand Magazine from August 1901 to April 1902. It has been called one of the best murder mystery/detective stories ever written. Holmes is hot right now, and in 2015 award-winning farceur Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor) hopped on the bandwagon and adapted the novella for five actors – two playing Holmes and Watson and the other three playing all the other 46 roles.
Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, under Jen Wineman’s direction, is opening at the Dorset Theatre Festival for a three-week run July 13-29. The added wrinkle? The role of Holmes is being played by Liz Wisan, who played the “woman track,” comprising 15 different roles, in the production at the Old Globe in San Diego in 2015.
“I called Liz and asked her if she was interested in doing the show again if she could play a different role,” Wineman explained. “I was open to a woman or a man playing Holmes and/or Watson, as their genders are kind of irrelevant. I wanted to find the best people to play these parts, I was not out to make a statement with the casting. Getting Liz in any role would be a treat, and after she decimated the competition at auditions I knew that that was it.”
“And Jen is one of my favorite directors. I really I wanted to work with her,” Wisan chimed in. “She is a genius at directing comedy.”
“I wanted an actor who could take command of the stage,” Wineman said. “Even today many female characters have to be led and be told what to do. Holmes has agency, like Rosalind in As You Like It. I was looking for someone with that agency, and Liz has it.”
“Liz will join the ranks of the great virtuoso actresses like Katherine Hepburn, Glenn Close and Fiona Shaw, who have played traditionally male roles,” said Festival Artistic Director Dina Janis, who has made Dorset a mecca for female playwrights, directors, and artists during her tenure. The Festival’s 40th anniversary season opened with a world premiere of Downstairs, a Theresa Rebeck play directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt. “We are thrilled to present this twist on Sherlock and welcome to our stage a star in the making. Our audiences are going to be delighted by her, and we could not be more excited.”
This is the first time Wineman and Wisan have worked at Dorset, and they are both blown away by the physical beauty and tranquility of the area.
“I am in love with this place, it is so beautiful,” Wisan said. The landscape, the architecture, the rolling hills, I have been walking around for hours learning my lines.”
Wineman agrees. “It is so gorgeous here. I just did a very serious play in New York City, so the contrast is wonderful. I want to make Baskerville the funniest thing it can be!”
“There is this myth that women aren’t funny and we beg to differ!” Wisan added emphatically.
Wineman confesses that her cast inspires her to new comedic heights. “The five people I’ve cast are pretty zany. They share my sense of humor, and the show is a thriller but also incredibly hilarious,” she explained, warning the audience to prepare for lots of cross dressing and hilarious physical capers.
Dave Quay is portraying Holmes’ faithful companion, Dr. John Watson.
“Dave is a very talented physical comedian and clown. He really nailed the role at auditions when he performed a scene where Watson is falling down a hill. Different actors handled it different ways, but when I saw Dave I said ‘That’s it!’,” Wineman said. “Often Watson is played as the straight man, but here you’ll be surprised to find out how funny Watson can be.”
The cast is filled out by Brian Owen, who has performed in two previous productions of Baskerville, Caitlin Clouthier, in the “woman track,” and Raji Ahsan. Wineman was cagey about whether any canine performers were in the cast.
Wisan explained that she is playing Holmes as a person, not specifically playing in to gender. “I am a woman bringing to the tale and to the stage whatever ‘womaness’ there is about me, but there are also things about me that are ‘mannish’ – I have a deeper voice and I am tall. Holmes is a person who is smart and quick, a genius. It is so wonderful to play a role that is traditionally male and have access to that brilliance and wit. In this time when women’s rights are being called into question it feels good!”
“There’s been a lot of attention recently to gender identity, we don’t call Holmes ‘madam,’ we haven’t changed the pronouns in the play. What defines a man is sort of left open,” Wineman explained. “We’re trying to look 30 years into the future when no one will be asking who can play iconic roles.”
Wisan defies anyone who would define what is feminine. “A friend had readings of iconic film scripts in her living room where men would read women’s roles and women would read men’s roles. I was reading the John Travolta role in Pulp Fiction and someone told me ‘You were reading it like a man.’ I was reading it in my voice and I am a woman. What is a woman? What is a man? And who decides these things?”
Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery runs July 13-29 at the Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road in Dorset VT. Single tickets and subscriptions for the 2017 Summer Season are on sale. The box office may be reached by calling (802) 867-2223 ex. 2 Tuesday through Saturday 12-6pm (8 pm on performance days.) For more information, or to purchase tickets and subscriptions online, visit Dorset Theatre Festival’s website at dorsettheatrefestival.org.
There will be a pre-show discussion Hounding Holmes’s History on Thursday, July 20 at 6 pm in the café, led by resident dramaturgs Sam Levit and Matt Kirby, who will discuss the history of Baskerville adaptations
by Gail M. Burns