12/5/2021     BASKERVILLE:  A SHERLOCK HOLMES MYSTERY            Theatrical Outfit

 

NOT SO ELEMENTARY
 

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Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who much preferred the soothing scale and soaring sounds of Grand Opera to the more plebian antics of stage farce, finds himself a secondary figure in this excursion into one of the most popular retellings of his adventures.   I found myself sitting in the rear center of the audience-allotted space of the Balzer Theatre at Herrens, fully anticipating the unfolding of a saga I hadn’t read in decades, yet throbbing with glee at the anticipatory antics of a typical Ken Ludwig script, layered with a new theatrical trope first established in England in 1995 with the adaptation of Hitchcock’s (NOT Buchan’s) The Thirty-Nine Steps, to wit, a central actor surrounded by a minimalist cast creating a plethora of other characters, turning a suspense classic into a comic masterpiece.

 

Our main character tonight is Dr. Watson, he who chronicled (some would say exploited) the exploits of his friend and companion for the enjoyment of a mass audience and thus created a legacy enjoyed more than a century later.  To my surprise (and quick delight), the role of Dr. Watson is essayed by a distaff actor, one Lala Cochran, who convinces within seconds via voice, accent, demeanor, costume, and the utmost talent that she is indeed a he – or a they.  Always the storyteller, they engage us directly as whimsically as they engage all the other characters (and their number can only be described as a plethora), and rapidly becomes the one with whom we engage, with whom we sympathize.

 

Holmes himself, portrayed by Atlanta newcomer John Keabler, while effective in the role, makes a more minimal impact, hiding (as it were) in the shadow of Dr. Watson’s point-of-view.  He is often off stage, either “back in London investigating a case for the King of Bohemia,” or in full view but buried under disguise or under other theatrical gimcrackery.

Which leaves three actors to portray everyone else, and, as anyone with prior exposure to this tale will tell you, there are many MANY “everyone elses.”   These yeoman-duty journeyman acting masters are Robin Bloodworth, Gina Rickicki, and Kathryn Tkel.  They essay such memorable characters as the stalwart Dr. Mortimer, the wide-eyed Sir Henry Baskerville, the mysterious butler Barrymore and his wife, the beauteous Beryl and her Lepidopterist brother Jack, Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, Holmes’ landlady Mrs. Hudson, a pair of cockney urchins, the escaped convict Seldon, a Scotsman, an Italian, a Frenchman, all without a thought of gender or age or accent.  Sir Henry, in fact, is here given a Texan background, rather than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original’s Canadian provenance.  Yes, almost every character has a different accent (kudos to Dialect Coach Elisa Carlson, if you’ll forgive a congratulatory digression).

 

At first I had my doubts as to the efficacy of this approach.  All three actors are very distinct physical types and should have been hard-pressed to “disappear” into multiple roles.  Thankfully, director Shannon Eubanks (and, I suspect playwright Ken Ludwig), did not require such thespianic dexterity.  Instead, the actors’ unique physicality was exploited for comedy, for arch-juxtaposition, for building a unique and vibrantly cosmopolitan world of character and caricature.  Mr. Ludwig was also kind enough to provide telling verbal cues that would give one actor or another (or even all at the same time) a reminder that “you better find an excuse to exit and change costume!”

 

Let it also be said here that Costume Designer Marie Quintero, charged with the imposing (dare I say unpossible?) task of creating layered Victorian costumes that can be logistically quick-changed, succeeds most admirably at her Quixotic task!  There had to have been a small army of backstage dressers to accomplish the changes that were accomplished, yet, if the curtain call sports any accuracy, there was only one on each side of the stage.  I am simply gobsmacked by the sheer success of the organization, the design, and the effect.

 

I am long past the usual stage of my musing in which I summarize the bones of plot and style of whatever theatrical event I am (hopefully) describing.  I beg your forgiveness for this lapse, but I am presuming most of you who have any interest in this production are already familiar with the story, with the tale of the legendary mastiff terrorizing the Baskerville family (a legacy of a 17th century kidnapping and curse), the threat to the most recent heir, the red herrings of {deleted by the spoiler police} and {deleted by the spoiler police}, and the actual resolution, the solution of the mystery chiefly through the ratiocination of Mr. Holmes, the happy ending experienced by {deleted by the spoiler police}, and the poetic justice of Grimpen Mire finally consuming {deleted by the spoiler police}.

 

Well, perhaps I have a secret hope that some of you are discovering this tale for the first time.

 

Baskerville is a skyrocket of a play, a story of mystery and suspense told through a farceur’s lens, a cavalcade of comedy that pays due respect to Holmes and to Doyle and to Watson, that retains a smidgen of suspense amid the noise and calamity, that satisfies the mind as easily as it tickles the funny bone.

 

That it is not-simply staged on a set that is not as simple as it appears, by five actors of unmitigated talent, carrying a carpetbag-ful of gimmicky and comic-laden props (designed by the always estimable Carolyn Cook), using the words of a comic writer who wallows in the meta even as he exploits the miracles inherent in modern stagecraft, is grist for a mill of praise that will surely follow this production beyond the end of its run.

 

And now. my dear readers, we have had an hour of work and homage and pastiche, so now we deserve to turn our thoughts to other channels.  May I suggest a wallow in a Cumberbatchian binge or another equally ephemeral pleasure?

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #toBaskerville)