Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Insight Theatre Company
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's reviews of Spring Awakening and Two Trains Running

John O'Hagan, Gwen Wotawa, Elliot Auch,
and Kent Coffel

Photo by John Lamb
If you've seen the madcap 2005 stage version of The 39 Steps, you're probably ready for this wacky stage adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous novel. Both plays rely on a constant rush of quick costume changes and an unlikely assortment of characters played by a couple of frenetic actors to really sell each show.

But that's also one of the problems in this Insight Theatre Company production of Ken Ludwig's Baskerville. Ludwig (most famous for Lend Me a Tenor) pushes Sherlock Holmes even farther into the background as a result, when the great detective is absent from most of the second half of the original book already. Thankfully, John O'Hagan is perfectly believable in the role, under the direction of Maggie Ryan. He plays much of the part in a solid, realistic manner, but still manages a few moments of fine manic gesticulation in act one. And his thoughtful explication of the presence of a mysterious walking cane before that sets Mr. O'Hagan up right away as a master of observation and deduction.

In the end, though, Baskerville is based mostly on the same gimmick as the recent stage version of The 39 Steps: two or three other actors frantically change costumes off-stage to play a constellation of characters from the 1901 serialized novel "Hound Of The Baskervilles." This newest incarnation, at the .ZACK theatre, is likewise a costume farce, based on the impossibility of making it all work in the first place. At least in The 39 Steps (originally conceived by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon and adapted by Patrick Barlow) we were in on the frantic challenge, as the changes took place before our eyes.

In Baskerville, Kent Coffel, as always, is very likable and reliable here as Dr. Watson. And Ed Reggi is very charming as the American heir to the Baskerville estate, Lord Henry—he's also great as Lestrade, Holmes' glowering nemesis from Scotland Yard and in a few other roles too. But we must stand in awe of the remaining two cast members, Gwen Wotawa and Elliot Auch, as they unleash a cavalcade of suspects both in London and upon the deadly moors. The whole show depends on their ability to each trot off as one character and then come bouncing back just a moment later as someone entirely different. And this they do, delightfully, dozens of times.

But the outstanding Ms. Wotawa and the ingenious Mr. Auch never seem to break a sweat, in their many guises, and we become complacent. Perhaps they make it look too easy.

Conan Doyle's puzzle still fits together as nicely as ever, but the amazing costuming caper swamps everything else (overwhelming the mystery of how the previous Lord Baskerville died, and whether or not it was premeditated, and whether or not it's about to happen all over again). It really is hard to believe Ms. Wotawa can embody (and clothe) so many characters with such great fullness and range, and so quickly; and Mr. Auch isn't very far behind in his own mad repertoire of incidental (and not so incidental) selves, in all sorts of haberdashery.

Interestingly, in at least three Ken Ludwig plays, all of the most important stuff happens offstage: in Tenor, the imposter performs in the opera concert during intermission; in Fox On The Fairway, the key moment in a golf match is off-stage; and here, the most crucial points of this reimagining of Conan Doyle's novel—the many costume changes—all occur backstage, too. Make of that... what you will.

But I think the larger point here is that the stage version of The 39 Steps is an even more episodic and style-driven piece. Conversely, Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is very tight and plot driven, and all that just gets a bit trampled in Ken Ludwig's "fast-change" rewrite. When all is said and done, the immortal Holmes and Watson seem to be left hanging on the wardrobe rack themselves.

Baskerville continues through October 29, 2017, at the .ZACK Theatre, 3224 Locust St. For more information visit

Cast of Characters
Sherlock Holmes: John O'Hagan*
Dr. Watson: Kent Coffel
Actor 1: Elliot Auch
Actor 2: Ed Reggi*
Actress 1: Gwen Wotawa*

* Member, Actors Equity Association

Design Team
Director: Maggie Ryan
Stage Manager: Joy Adler
Set Designer: Matt Stuckel
Lighting Design: Connor Meers
Sound Designer: Robin Weatherall