Dorset's "Baskerville" is howl-inducing
Ken Ludwig's farce draws evening full of laughter
Such musings were probably with playwright Ken Ludwig when he authored the popular farce "Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery," which saw its regional premiere at Dorset Theatre Festival this past week in a short run that will take it through July 29. The play is directed by Jen Wineman
To be funny one must have a sound sense of timing. To write great comedy for the stage one must not only have timing but also the ability to translate it over multiple human layers to maximum effect. Ludwig has this in spades, and coupled with the right cast and crew, it can make a difference in how the yucks are delivered - and received.
And just to spice things up a bit, DTF executive artistic director Dina Janis cast the versatile actor Liz Wisan to play the role of Holmes - as a man.
The plot is familiar to fans of Arthur Conan Doyle's famed creation. Holmes (Wisan) and Watson (Dave Quay) must solve the mystery of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" before a family curse dooms its latest heir, Sir Henry (Raji Ahsan, who also plays numerous other roles).
Does a wild hellhound really prowl the moors? Can Sherlock and Dr. Watson discover the truth with time enough to avoid disaster? Silly accents and disguises abound as the play's actors, mostly Brian Owen and Caitlin Clouthier, portray dozens of characters in this blur of the ridiculous.
Prior to this play I was told by Sally Sugarman of the Baker Street Breakfast Club that Sherlockians can put up with anything done to their characters as long as it's done well, and so Wisan playing Sherlock worked out, for two reasons.
The first is that Wisan is terrific actor who knew just how haughty to be, and how to carry the scenes she had to carry. It also wasn't as in-your-face as it might have been because in "Baskerville," Sherlock is off stage for large chunks of time.
But perhaps most importantly, Wisan as Sherlock works because the play is so utterly silly and poking fun at itself - to include some well-timed ad libs - that having a woman play Holmes fed right into the visual delivery of Ludwig's ludicrous narrative. Well done, Ms. Wisan.
Dave Quay fit like a glove into the Watson role. He was stiff in that unique way of the British upper class, confident, and utterly loveable as the Ying to Wisan's Yang.
One of the things I love about Dorset is sitting outside and sipping coffee before a play. I get to watch the cast and crew arrive, and I had a chance to call out well wishes to Mr. Quay. He looked in character the entire time.
Ahsan excelled in his multiple roles but really did himself justice as Sir Henry, playing up the cowboy kitsch to the nth degree. The only thing he was missing was a real steed to mount; indeed, at times he nearly convinced us one was coming from backstage.
Finally, I reserve mention of Owen and Clouthier for the end. These two talented Thespians played more supporting roles than were possible to count. Often, they did so with a turn of the back and change of a hat or scarf, then right back again. They came off the wings in one costume, only to reappear 30 seconds later in another, with a totally different shtick.
In short, Clouthier and Owen carried the entire evening on their shoulders from non-leading roles; any actor will tell you that's a tremendously difficult trick to pull off, but they did it. I found myself leaning forward in my seat each time they left the stage in anticipation of their next entry. The laughs they drew were easily the loudest of the evening, and that's the whole point of a farce.
Lights by Michael Giannitti and sound by Jane Shaw continued their excellence at DTF. Alexander Woodward's set was both stunning and breathtaking, a beautiful, stately creation of built-ins in a British parlor that made for easy shifts of scenery. The balcony device was a most cunning touch to add depth to the scenes in this play.
Special nods must go to Aaron P. Mastin's hundreds of costume variations as well as the stage management of Sarah Perlin, who had to keep this logistical frenzy moving on time and on target for 2 hours and 15 minutes (15 minute intermission included).
Please do not look deeply for arcane themes. "Baskerville" is an unabashed, in-your-face call not to take ourselves too seriously. As such, it makes us look in the mirror to see the fool within: if we can't poke fun at ourselves, then what exactly is our reason for being?
DTF yet again has done well to echo the inane yet incisive satire which can be found in works from Aristophanes to Plautus and beyond, traditions which reach back several millennia in our creative consciousness. And in doing so, they scream out to us that we must go see this play.
Yet perhaps more importantly, Ms. Janis' worthy troupe keeps alive a legacy handed down to contemporary humorists of all persuasions - a flame burning brightly on the stage of that most human arena, the theatre of the absurd.
"Baskerville" will run through July 29 at Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Rd., Dorset, Vt. Info: 802-867-2223 or dorsettheatrefestival.org
Follow award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias on Twitter: @Telly Halkias.
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