In the tradition of Irma Vep and most notably, John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, Ken Ludwig’s fast-paced comic farce Baskerville, adapted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, employs just five actors; two to play the central characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson while the remaining three cover everyone else; somewhere around forty or so supporting characters.
Like The 39 Steps, this requires lightning fast costume changes. Actors exit as one character and enter as another. Occasionally, with the swap of a wig, the disrobing of a cloak, the use of a deeper or higher voice or a different, comical accent, the change is done at the blink of an eye in front of the audience. The resulting effect is that it’s all played for laughs, even if the story the play is presenting is perfectly serious.
After an old-fashioned, jaunty sounding musical introductory opening, Sir Charles Baskerville (Toby Yatso) enters for his late night walk on the gloomy Devonshire moors. With a full moon hanging in the background, some spooky, scene-setting sound effects and lighting, plus the alarming growl of an unseen beast, and the ripe, over-acting of a performer whose character is about to killed, the whole effect becomes reminiscent of a live action representation of a thirties, black and white Universal Pictures monster movie. Things have started well.
Dr. Watson (Michael Jenkinson) appears center stage, introduces both himself and that most famous of turn-of-the-century London detectives, Sherlock Holmes (Randy Messersmith) and begins to tell us the curious tale of The Hound of the Baskervilles. So far, so promising.
Then the scene opens up to the living room of 221B Baker Street, where Homes and Watson discuss the origins of a walking cane left at the detective’s residence, while landlady Mrs. Hudson (Emily Mohney) offers afternoon tea. “Smoking’s good for the health,” Holmes declares as he puffs on his pipe. Nothing wrong with any of that, except there’s another character, a cleaning lady (again, Toby) who appears to be scrubbing the floor with one hand while making whimpering noises behind a lace handkerchief held up to her mouth with the other. It’s hiding a mustache we can easily see that will be part of Toby’s following character, yet it all looks, feels, and sounds wrong, and it’s certainly not funny. It’s at that early point where the effective, potentially satirical tone of those opening few moments is immediately yanked from under us; a point from which the production never quite recovers, and things have hardly begun.
Ludwig’s adaptation is remarkably faithful to the Conan Doyle novel with only a few, and admittedly, lame jokes added to the script (two characters ordered not to say “sir” to every order reply with “Yes, sir.”). The real humor comes from the invention of the production, how the players deliver their lines, the energy behind the performances and the overall style created to supply the laughs. As a result, from city to city, no two regional productions can ever be the same. At best, Phoenix Theatre’s Baskerville certainly looks good.
Tianna Torrilhon’s scenic design, where the wood-built set, positioned with doors on layered platforms and the use of a revolving stage, can become in an instant a living room in London; a creepy background to the Baskerville family manor; a train station platform; and the atmospheric Devonshire moors, is extremely effective. Connie Furr’s Victorian era costumes are wonderfully eye-catching, and everything is terrificaly lit by Daniel Davisson. All of these elements, plus Marie Quinn’s atmospheric sound, together add to the presentation of a handsomely designed production.
The five person cast of highly talented players are certainly game. Both Jenkinson and Messersmith would make great a team of Watson and Homes in any production, plus Mohney, Yatso and Pasha Yamatahari together are unflagging in their energy; you wonder how is it they’re not continually breathless. Mohney in particular is a welcomed presence, ensuring that at the very least, most of the female characters will be played by a female. A male actor in female costume affecting a high-pitched voice is never automatically funny if what they’re doing or saying is neither witty nor clever.
But with all the moments of shouting above the intentionally dramatic stabs of old-style radio drama music, the slapstick of bodies seemingly rolling downhill, the absence of anything subtle, and the overall zaniness, the production often looks and sounds messy. And worse; it’s not funny. A lot of that has to do with Ken Ludwig’s script which needs to be more amusing than it is, but this production’s free-wheeling, anything-for-a-laugh approach is heavy on mugging and light on real humor. What might have worked in rehearsal where an actor developed a piece of business that made other cast members and crew laugh and the director declares, keep it in, doesn’t always come together in front of an audience. It’s like sitting poker face while watching a re-run of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In – the energy, the speed, and the likability of performers you admire, wildly running around before you, is still there, and you desperately want to enjoy it, but you wonder what it was you found so funny when it first appeared.
Playwright Ludwig has said that when he adapted the famous Sherlock Holmes novel, he intended the script to be an empty vessel into which different productions around the country could pour whatever they wanted. The new Phoenix Theatre production from director Robert Kolby Harper, now performing on its main stage until February 12, has done exactly that, except with all the broadness, someone forgot to say when.
Pictures curtsey of Reg Madison Photography