Sunday 18 September 2016

Baskerville is big theatrics, Sherlock as slapstick
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  A diabolical spectral hound from Devon named Yeth is reportedly the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's serialized novel The Hound of the Baskervilles published in 1902 that ranks as his most popular Sherlock Holmes / Dr. John Watson story ever.

In the hands of Ken Ludwig, this adaptation of Doyle's thriller is less dramatic detective mystery and more Monty Python meets Laugh-In. Sight gags abound as three actors rhyme off some 40 characters, often by doffing costumes on stage or just switching hats. Nudge-nudge-wink-winks at the audience also reveal Ludwig's stated intent that "Baskerville is about the theatre as much as it is about Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson." Much more about theatre in the hands of Director John Murphy than about the two leads, and mostly for the better.

Quicky recap of the plot : Sir Charles Baskerville has died at his country estate,  ostensibly of a heart attack. But the death mask look of fear on his face betrays a horrid end. Nearby are outsize paw prints that suggest he was literally scared to death. A nefarious plot against the family perhaps in the making here?  The imminent arrival of surviving son from Texas, Sir Henry, lends urgency to the whodunit. Only the deductive reasoning of Holmes bounced fitfully off his foil Watson will shed some light on the dark recesses of whosever heart is behind it all. 

How it's all put together :  Ken Ludwig wants contemporary audiences to have fun with the at-time dullish, pedantic and o.c. mind of Sherlock Holmes. But remain true to the storyline, too, because, Holmes observes, "there is a feverish quality to this unlikely story that intrigues me".

When Sir Henry and Watson arrive at the Devonshire moors that is home to the dark and musty Baskerville estate, Sir Henry (Kirk Smith) tells Watson (Mark Weatherley) "Talk about gloomy : this place reminds me of my mother's funeral, without the liquor" -- just one of a passle of contemporary send-up lines that would not have been possible out of Sir Arthur's inkwell back in 1902.

In typical Doyle fashion, meanwhile, clues are dropped that point inevitably and inexorably at who the villain might be. But it is the stage tricksterisms that carry this piece and, ultimately, make it work despite some too-long monologues by Watson -- sluggish plot-explainers -- particularly in Act 1.

What the show brings to the stage :  Lots of comic diction drives this production. The housekeepers, Inge Barrymore (Lauren Bowler) and her husband (Mike Wasko) are Germans. Their fractured English -- brother Victor becomes "Wiktor" who is an escaped "conwict" -- is a clever sound-gag reversal of the German tongue where w's are pronounced 'v'. Old vaudeville routines are common throughout -- "Stop calling me 'Sir'!" Holmes (Alex Zahara) bellows at two couriers : of course they reply, instantly and in unison "Yes, sir!" Cheap laughs but still gigglers. 

Neighbour Jack Stapleton (Wasko) and "sister" Beryl (Bowler) provide some of the best comic moments. In his Tilly Endurables get-up replete with pith helmet, Jack chases obscure and elusive Disneyesque butterflies around the stage and into the audience. Beryl flips over Sir Henry with his Texas twang, and, typical Murphy, some body part "up-staging" is the customary result. 

Sir Henry wants to be down-homey. No more "Sir" for him, and Dr. Watson becomes "John-boy". They do fist pumps. You get the drift. 

Production values that hi-lite the action : The set (by ACT's 38-year vet Ted Roberts) features numerous screens that are functionally and collectively the sixth actor on the stage. Designer Candelario Andrade projects the likes of a London hotel, Paddington Station and the Baskerville moors imaginatively and ingeniously onto these screens, along with numerous shadow puppet sequences. Scenery wagons are propelled and flipped almost whimsically by both the actors and production crew to fun effect.

Costume designer Mara Gottler has an unflinching eye for period piece clothing for each character. But it is their spitfire changes from one character to another by the Bowler / Smith / Wasko trio that make the costumes a central part of the madcap silliness staged here.

Acting pin-spots : To this reviewer's eye it is without a doubt the Lauren Bowler / Mike Wasko team that triggers most of the acting fun, sport & amusement across the night. They riff off each other as both the Barrymores and the Stapletons plus other assorted comic characters moment after moment after moment. Never any let up or let down from them. 

If the plot's chronicler and narrator Dr. Watson was allowed by writer Ludwig to drone on a bit too long, Mr. Zahara's Holmes was betimes beset by incidental and momentary rage attacks I found a bit distracting. A pompous and self-righteous Sherlock needn't act shrill or supercilious, just be mildly disdainful of inferiours.  In all, however, the five actors and six backstage movers-&-shakers of the scenery and props acquitted themselves admirably under Mr. Murphy's direction. 

Who gonna like : Some folks love whodunits and build a year's escapist reading out of it. Just as some can't get enough of science fiction. Or others romance stories. Whodunit junkies will find "Doyle updated" quite to their liking no doubt.

Not one of those folks, this reviewer finds the staging and sets and scenery trickery live up to Mr. Ludwig's promise : as much to go see as the plot or the characters, probably moreso.

This is a show whose sum of its parts -- particularly all the antic stage business of the second act -- exceeds the whole of the piece as structured by Mr. Ludwig. But the second act without any doubt made whatever reservations noted about Act 1 seem quite irrelevant to the evening's overall buzz.

Particulars : Produced by Arts Club Theatre Company (53rd season, 582nd performance).  At the Stanley Theatre, Granville @ 11th.  To October 9th.  Run-time 2 hours plus intermission.  Tickets & show times via Arts Club or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel by Ken Ludwig.  Director John Murphy.  Set & Lighting Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Mara Gottler.  Sound Designer Stephen Bulat.  Projection Designer Candelario Andrade. Stage Manager Allison Spearin.  Assistant Stage Manager Ronaye Haynes.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tessa Gunn.

Performers :  Lauren Bowler.  Kirk Smith.  Mike Wasko.  Mark Weatherley. Alex Zahara.


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