Sunday, June 24, 2018

Baskerville Offers a Sublimely Comedic Rendition of Sherlock Holmes

Every once in a while, someone surprises theatergoers with a sublimely fresh take on an old story. 

Ken Ludwig's Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery (Baskerville), the latest in Park Square Theatre's annual mystery series, offers a totally new perspective of The Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps the most famous of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I was first introduced to the narrative as a kid watching Wishbone (I'd LOVE to see a fresh remake of that classic children's show FYI); later in many film iterations; and a couple of times on various theater stages. It's always been presented to me as a serious, eerie, almost horror-esque piece. Normally this is Not My Thing, but I love Sherlock Holmes and have always found it interesting to compare takes, so I roll with it.

Imagine my surprise then when Holmes and Watson strut onto Park Square's stage played by female actors, surrounded by an unapologetically diverse cast, and the show is downright... campy? Within minutes the whole audience was teetering with laughter, and by the end of the play we'd all gotten out several belly laughs. It was totally unexpected but it worked for me, and hats off to the actors and crew for committing 100% to a big risk that really pays off.

A quick summary of the play goes like this: Dr. Mortimer appears at 221B Baker Street and implores Holmes to investigate the untimely death of his patron Charles Baskerville and protect the new heir to the estate. The suspicious circumstances of Baskerville's death are too tempting for Holmes to leave behind, and she and Dr. Watson set out at once to investigate. Their case leads them quickly to the eerie Baskerville manor on a moor in Devonshire, where they meet a host of shady employees and suss out multiple suspects. It seems that everyone living on the moor has a secret to keep, and as we learn more about said secrets it becomes increasingly clear that the biggest of all is hiding in plain sight. I can't say too much more - most of the fun is in figuring out whodunnit after all - but it's a wild ride involving people in disguise, convicts, burned letters, ghostly figures, and a plethora of accents.

I'll be honest: right away I found the over-the-top comedy to be a little much. It felt like it was cheapening the story and overacted, and I wasn't on board. But the more we got into the show, the more genius this vision from director Theo Langason felt. Much like the pleasant revelation that Romeo and Juliet could be funny (click here to read my review of the Guthrie's excellent production last year), I began to think: why *couldn't* Sherlock Holmes be a funny story? I mean at this point the character is somewhat of a cliche, and if there were any story to spoof, Baskerville would be it. The entire narrative - from the ghastly mastiff that frightens the Baskervilles to death, to the macabre manor on a moor, to Sherlock's impossibly adept deductions - is so over the top that it makes for a perfect parody. That's not to say that this production doesn't have its serious moments; there are many times when we are held in suspense and still feel the creepy vibes radiating from Devonshire. But the overall mood was light, which I frankly welcomed, and really allowed this talented cast to showcase their many gifts.

This rendition could only work with people who are supremely talented and all-in, and this cast delivers. Anchoring the action are McKenna Kelly-Eiding and Sara Richardson as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively. Their chemistry is terrific and they make an awesome pairing. Kelly-Eiding has a droll delivery that retains Holmes' serious nature while still being a whole lot of fun; Richardson has a posh, spot-on accent and wide-eyed narration that I found positively delightful. The rest of the cast plays multiple characters each - I'd say at least 5 or 6 characters per person - in a dizzying order that lifts the tempo of the show. Ricardo Beaird brought a Keenan Thompson quality to his parts, and I found his farcical acting really hilarious. Eric "Pogi" Sumangil brought a self-aware attitude to his caricatures, and his masculine strutting had me in stitches. The biggest surprise was new-to-me Marika Proctor, who disappeared into each part and delivered perfectly pitched accents for each and every character. She disappeared into her roles and was totally delightful, and I hope I get to see her in more productions soon. It's clear overall that this cast had a total blast getting into character, and it was fun as an audience to see them clearly enjoying themselves so much; it helps us all feel in on the joke, and there's no way such a preposterous take on this story could work otherwise.

The basis of the set (designed by Eli Sherlock) is a wall of portraits in wealthy manor, with large portrait frame-style entrances that various sets are pushed through as the show progresses. It cycles through a dizzying range of settings - from offices to 221B Baker street to rooms in the manor and the moor itself. For as many set pieces as there are, you can double (or triple!) the number of costumes (designed by Mandi Johnson) and props (by Sadie Ward) that cycle through the show. It's an astonishing amount of work to keep track of, but the usage is pretty seamless and allows us to keep being surprised as each new character and location is unveiled. Hats off to the all-female crew led by Laura Topham (three cheers for that!) who keep track of all of this and swiftly transition us between vignettes. Baskerville clocks in at a little under two and a half hours, and it would feel really long if it weren't for their expert work. There are several nice lighting moments as well from Michael Kittel that truly set the mood, working in tandem to direct us to the intended emotion with the flick of a switch.

Baskerville is such a great example of what happens when you get a diverse, talented team together and enable them to really let their imaginations run wild. It's one more gem in Park Square's growingly progressive portfolio, and I was totally charmed by this fresh take. I think even purists can get in on the joke if they come with an open mind. It's Victorian-mystery-novel-meets-Wes-Anderson-films-meets-Scooby-Doo, and who doesn't want to see that?! Baskerville runs at Park Square Theatre through August 5; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

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