by Gail M. Burns
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) earned his knighthood by writing what used to be called “ripping good yarns,” many of which still hold up well today, mostly notable his sixty Sherlock Holmes stories written between 1887 and 1927. In fact Holmes has such a rabid fan base that there are some who believe that – like Jesus, Elvis, and King Arthur – he will come again to save the world.
Indeed, Holmes did “return from the dead.” The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901) marked his first appearance in print after his “death” in the 1893 story The Final Problem. The novella is one of Holmes’ more popular adventures, and unique in that the great detective is absent from the narrative for long stretches, leaving his companion, Dr. John Watson, alone on Dartmoor to solve the curse of Baskerville Hall.
I don’t need to tell you that Holmes and Watson are incredibly “hot” right now, with TV series and films and plays portraying and reimagining their adventures lurking around every corner. Award-winning farceur Ken Ludwig has joined the throng with Baskerville (2015), a retelling of the famous story as a comedy for five actors – two playing Holmes and Watson and the other three playing all the other 46 roles.
There is a three-actor comedy version of The Hound of the Baskervilles by Steve Canny and John Nicholson of Peepolykus that I saw in 2009 and 2011 at Shakespeare & Company and just loved, so I was concerned that Ludwig’s version might pale in comparison, but there really is no comparison. That version is all about the laughs, while Ludwig actually wants to tell the story along with showing you a good time.
The chatter before opening was all about director Jen Wineman’s decision to cast a woman, Liz Wisan, as Sherlock Holmes. Wisan has appeared in this play before, in the “woman track,” 15 roles performed here by Caitlin Clouthier, and comparing the two opportunities I am puzzled that she would think playing Holmes was the superior opportunity. As mentioned earlier, Holmes is apparently MIA for most of this story, leaving all the work to Watson, here delightfully played by Dave Quay. Offered a chance to play any role in this work, I would have chosen Watson over Holmes.
But there she is, a woman playing Sherlock Holmes. Wisan is not playing Holmes as a woman, nor is she pretending to be a man, but sadly she is also not playing Sherlock Holmes, or at least not the Holmes I am familiar with. This is a comedy, but Holmes is neither a funny man nor a man with a lot of humor. Holmes should be the straight man, the calm center in the farcical storm, where Wisan plays the role as a jolly fellow along for the fun. For me, it didn’t work, and that has nothing to do with gender.
Because Ludwig actually wants to include the entire plot of the mystery, the show gets off to a slow start with much exposition, but by the end of Act I and all through Act II the hilarity is moving at high speed. Quay and Brian Owen, who plays a wide variety of roles, are tremendous physical comics. Clouthier and Raji Ahsan are no slouches either, but Quay and Owen, who has performed these roles in an earlier production in Cincinnati, are stand-outs.
While it is a short book, The Hound of the Baskervilles is a big story, bouncing from London to the moors of Devon and back again. Scenes take place on moors and mires, in trains and carriages, in stately halls and hotels. In his notes on the style of the play in the script Ludwig specifically says “There are no sets needed or called for.” And yet here Wineman and set designer Alexander Woodward have built a humongous set, towering bookshelves filled with every prop in the Dorset collection and then some. It is impressive to look at, but it is barely used, other than as an impediment to be scaled on occasion, because, as the playwright said, this show doesn’t need a set!
What this show demands are piles of costumes and a backstage crew of dressers well-versed in the art of the quick change. Hats off (and on and off again) to costume designer Aaron Mastin, stage manager Sarah Perlin, and all those unsung heroes behind the scenes for their impressive efforts. Owen, Clouthier, and Ahsan do an excellent job of defining their multitudinous personae through voice and body, but the costumes and wigs really seal the deal.
While the set is superfluous, it is handsome, and it, and Wineman’s direction, are greatly enhanced by Michael Giannitti’s superb lighting design. Jane Shaw’s elaborate soundscape also adds much to the fun, but sadly she misses the most important mark, providing snarls and growls more leonine than canine and no bone-chilling howls for the title character.
For die-hard fans of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, this show may be disappointing, but anyone who loves a good farce is in for a treat. This is a show that you can take grandma and the kids (8+) to and everyone will leave with a smile on their face. And it is an excellent way to encourage young readers’ appetite for a few of Doyle’s ripping good yarns.
Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery by Ken Ludwig, directed by Jen Wineman, runs July 13-29 at the Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road in Dorset VT. Scenic design by Alexander Woodward; lighting design by Michael Giannitti; costume design by Aaron Mastin; sound design by Jane Shaw; stage manager Sarah Perlin. CAST: Liz Wisan as Sherlock Holmes, Dave Quay as Dr. John Watson, with Raji Ahsan, Caitlin Clouthier, and Brian Owen as everyone else.
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.