Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's many works featuring Holmes, "The Hound of the Baskervilles," which first appeared in 1901, is considered my many Sherlockian scholars to be the finest. It begins with the death of Sir Charles Baskerville at his estate in Devonshire, apparently at the claws of the monstrous hound that is said to lurk on the property. We are then whisked to Holmes' home in London, where a friend of Sir Charles, Dr. Mortimer, seeks help from Holmes to find out what really happened, as he expects foul play. We meet a raft of characters, both in London and in Devonshire, from all stations in life. Some of these characters figure in the machinations of the plot while others provide local color, a bit of humor, or are meant to keep us guessing which way the plot will turn.
Ludwig's take on the tale is the most recent of numerous adaptations for stage and screen. Ludwig, best known for the fast-paced farce Lend Me a Tenor, approaches "Baskervilles" as a farce as well, not by speeding up the complex plot, but by reducing the cast to just five actors. With one actor committed to playing Holmes and another to Watson, that leaves the remaining three cast members to divide some 40 other parts among themselves, calling for rapid-fire exits and entrances, with madcap costume changes backstageand in a couple of instances, on stage.
The dexterity of those actors, changing not only clothes, but accents, vocal pitch and posture throughout the evening, is impressive and gives the play continuous theatricality. Indeed, that is where most of the fun in this production of can be found. The actual mystery at hand plays second fiddle to the artifice and theatricality of its presentation, with the charm, and even suspense, drawn out of it. Perhaps the tale that was a chilling, nail-biting mystery 117 years ago has become dated, and the way to put new life into it is to treat it as camp, but for that to succeed requires a greater spirit of fun than was in evidence at Park Square. Theo Langason's staging too often leaves the actors in static positions, without injecting energy into the mystery. But staging aside, playwright Ludwig has turned "The Hounds of the Baskervilles" into a farce, but not a comedy, and that is its chief failing. It simply is not very funny. Rather than mine the plotline itself for humor, it goes for easy laughs, such as changing the heir of the estate from a Canadian to a Texan, simply for the purpose of making a few low-ball Texas jokes, and giving the character a fish-out-of-water Texan drawl.
To turn Conan Doyle's tale on its head a bit further, Langason has cast two female actors as the two leads, Holmes and Watson. (This is not the playwright's ideaBaskerville premiered in 2015 at Arena Stage and and has been produced numerous times since, with male actors played those roles.) This would seem to be a delightful idea, with the gender swap drawing out different qualities in the iconic sleuth and his right-hand man, or should I say, person. Accordingly, pronouns referencing Holmes and Watson are changed, but not their first names, allowing one character, after addressing Dr. John Watson to comment that John is an odd name for a woman. At another point, Watson appears to be attracted to one of the female characters, but as this attraction is peripheral to the plot and goes nowhere, it offers no particular new slant into Watson, or his/her relationship to Holmes. Other than offering two female actors the opportunity to play these juicy roles, there is no sense of a purpose in making the gender switch.
One expects Sherlock Holmes to be dominant on the stage, but in this case, it is Dr. Watson who shines brightest. In part that is due to Ludwig's recasting of the story, which gives Watson a more central role than heor sheusually has. At times she acts as a narrator for the story, framed as the doctor is composing an account of this latest triumph by the great Sherlock Holmes, and so we are viewing the story through her eyes. Much credit, though, goes to Sara Richardson, who really does shine in the role. Her Watson is unstintingly proper, loyal, humble, virtuous, eager to be of service, and approaches every twist and turn in the case with a wide-eyed innocence that is tremendously endearing. Holmes, on the other hand, seems to have her light under a bushel. McKenna Kelly-Eiding was terrific not long ago as #13 in the ensemble driven The Wolves, but in this turn, does not hold center stage. We expect to hang on her every word and follow her labyrinthine logic, but this Sherlock does not have that ability to draw us in, nor the flair for grand pronouncements when the time comes to make them.
The other three cast members all do swell work in their multitude of roles. Among the highlights, Ricardo Beaird is especially memorable as Stapleton, an oddball butterfly-chasing neighbor to the Baskerville estate, Eric "Pogi" Sumangil is a hoot as Sir Henry Baskerville, the heir to the Baskerville estate from Texas, and Marika Proctor is an especially spooky Mrs. Barrymore, one of the estate's housekeepers. They are, all three, extremely hard working and game to don the assortment of comical costumes and wigs that populate the show.
The setting designed by Eli Sherlock is a simple affair with three arches used in rotation to stage various location, and clever set pieces moved in to flesh out the scenes, aided by some clever props designed by Sadie Ward. Mandi Johnson's period costumes are terrific, especially given the wide range of attire that needs to be pulled on and off in an instant. Michael P. Kittel's lighting and Peter Morrow's sound design both enhance the production. Keely Wolter is the dialect coach, and has helped the cast do an excellent job distinguishing the voices of their characters, between upper and lower classes, as well as between London and rural Devonshire, along with Henry Baskerville's Texas accent.
I generally enjoy Sherlock Holmes plays and films, and was a big fan of Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders mounted by Park Square three summers ago. I was looking forward to the novel casting of women in the lead roles, and a dose of happy stage mayhem with the other characters playing multiple parts. But I had not bargained for the latter to overwhelm the pleasures of the Conan Doyle narrative, nor for a stiff and unnatural staging, and certainly not for a Sherlock Holmes absent charisma. I was greatly pleased with Sara Richardson's portrayal of Dr. Watson, taken by the production's creative design work, and impressed by the ensemble's collective hard work and good will. But, in balance, the play does measure up as a winning new spin on a classic mystery tale. One suspects Ludwig intended to send audiences a broad wink throughout the production, but it feels more like he had his eyes closed.
Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, through August 5, 2018, on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square Theatre, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - 60.00; under 30 discounted seats, $21.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military $10.00 discount; rush tickets, $24.00, available for unsold seats one hour before performance (cash only). For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org
Playwright: Ken Ludwig; Director: Theo Langason; Scenic Design: Eli Sherlock; Costume Design: Mandi Johnson; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Design: Peter Morrow; Properties Design: Sadie Ward; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Assistant Director: Ashawnti Sakina Ford; Stage Manager: Laura Topham; Assistant Stage Manager: Samantha Diekman.
Cast: Ricardo Beaird (Dr. Mortimer, Milker, Barrymore, Stapleton and others), McKenna Kelly-Eiding (Sherlock Holmes), Maria Proctor (Mrs. Hudson, Cartwright, Mrs. Barrymore, Miss Stapleton and others), Sara Richardson (Doctor John Watson), Eric "Pogi" Sumangil (Sir Henry Baskerville, Inspector Lestrade and others).