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Kirk Smith and Mark Weatherley. Photo by David Cooper.
Opening the first show of its new season in the midst of the Fringe Festival, the Arts Club has chosen to go with a play that could easily be mistaken for a Fringe show if it weren’t for its two full acts and elaborate production values. Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery might be subtitled Much Ado about Nothing. It’s silly fun—with the emphasis on silly—a series of theatrical acrobatics from director John Murphy, a talented cast of five, a busy backstage crew who get to take curtain calls with the cast, and a design team who earn their pay.
Ludwig rewrites Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles as a self-conscious metatheatrical romp. Alex Zahara portrays Sherlock Holmes as a barking egomaniac. Mark Weatherly is his faithful assistant, chronicler and straight-man, Dr. Watson. The other 40 characters are played by only three actors--Lauren Bowler, Kirk Smith and Mike Wasko--whose quick changes of costume and wigs and comic accents push the pace and the play into farce territory. All of them at various times and in different ways acknowledge the audience, sharing the goofy joke with us.
Smith’s primary role is that of the current Lord Baskerville, heir apparent to the estate and fortune, whom he plays as a Texan (the only significant change from Conan Doyle’s original, where Baskerville comes from Canada). Bowler and Wasko do most of the broadest character work as pairs of kids, servants and the Baskerville estate’s brother-sister neighbours, the Stapletons. Wasko is very funny as a couple of large women and a Castilian hotel manager. Bowler is a knockout, playing the servant as a demented Transylvanian and Miss Stapleton as a belle out of Tennessee Williams.
Murphy puts his actors through every shtick in the book, even the “walk this way” groaner gag. In one elaborate sequence Holmes, Watson and Baskerville struggle across the moor in a windstorm, leaning into the wind, their hands billowing the tails of their suit jackets, Watson windmilling his arms as he runs (in place) to catch up. Objects blow across the stage towards them: a beach ball, a bicycle wheel. They go through a door, close it and the wind dies – but then blows it open and they’re blown backward again until they slam the door. Then the stagehand with the fan steps out of the wings onto the stage as if to say, “See, this is all it was.”
The carefully choreographed dance of actors and objects relies heavily on Ted Roberts’ large framed screens and other set pieces that fly and glide in and out, aided by the performers and onstage crew. Also crucial to the sfx dynamic are Stephen Bulat’s melodramatic soundscape, Roberts’ frenetic lighting and Candelario Andrade’s eclectic projections to which the actors sometimes add shadow puppetry or their own bodies. Mara Gottler provides her usual glorious costumes, a couple of them tearaways that allow the actors to comically switch characters in front of our eyes. And it would be unfair not to credit the stage management team—Allison Spearin, her assistant Ronaye Haynes and apprentice Tessa Gunn—because what goes on backstage must be as frantic and carefully choreographed as what we see out front.
But all that talent and effort and expense is telling us what we already know from seeing TheatreSports and Fringe shows: that theatrical storytelling can be clever. There’s less here than meets the eye. And sometimes less isn’t more.