A word of warning: Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery may not be what you are expecting.
No doubt looking for a follow-up to the Arts Club Theatre Company’s success with 39 Steps and One Man, Two Guvnors, artistic director Bill Millerd has turned to Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery. This Sherlock Holmes farce pales in comparison. Even for those who have not seen the other two shows, Baskerville fails to deliver in any big way as either a mystery or a farce.
Using Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles as its source material, the story follows so closely to Doyle’s tale that if the novel was still under copyright there would be some royalties to pay.
Considered one of Doyle’s best Holmes’ mysteries – during his career Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels about the famous detective – Ludwig saw Baskerville as ripe for comedy. Problem is, this mish-mash of mystery and comedy doesn’t quite gel. Any attempt to keep track of Doyle’s story inside all the silliness, character transitions, costume changes and technology used in the production, is near impossible. For farce to work effectively there must be a solid base and, in this production at least, that base is built on rocky moors.
It also leads us back to the earlier warning. Intermission chatter opening night centered on the realization by some that Baskerville was a farce. Fully expecting a serious Victorian mystery, there was disappointment from more than a few audience members. Guess the lesson here is that it is best to always read the fine print as the Arts Club quotes the New York Times, which called the show “self-aware and intentionally absurd” (although it fails to mention the review also wonders why “this fairly amusing play isn’t funnier”). Consider yourself duly informed. On both counts.
Still, there are a few nice performances, and one cannot help but admire that the dozens of characters in the story are played by just three actors (the two other actors play Holmes and Watson exclusively).
Particularly good is Mark Weatherley as Holmes’ sidekick, Dr Watson. Weatherley brings a likability to Watson that is tinged with a delightful self-awareness. As Holmes, Alex Zahara manages the detective’s arrogance, but on opening night too much of his delivery was lost to the wings; it doesn’t help that accents are as thick as butter.
As the only woman in the cast, Lauren Bowler seems to be auditioning for a Carol Burnett biopic; you’ll half expect her to arrive on stage at one point with a curtain rod running through the back of her dress.
Technically, Baskerville does often dazzle. Movable scrims, live and pre-taped video, shadow puppets and all other manner of gimmicks are utilized. At times though things get messy, and the precision necessary to pull off all the intricate production elements is fleeting.
Mara Gottler’s costumes are period appropriate, and one has to admire the construction that ensures the sometimes insanely quick costume changes (one particularly good change happens right before our eyes). Ted Roberts and Cadelario Andrade work in tandem with some effective lighting and projections.
In Ludwig’s attempt to combine mystery with the silly, Sherlock Holmes purists will be as disappointed as those who love a good farce.
Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery by Ken Ludwig. Directed by John Murphy. On stage at the Arts Club Theatre Company’s Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville St, Vancouver) until October 9. Visit http://artsclub.com for tickets and information.