by James O’Barr
Unless you are a committed Sherlockian, a member of the elite Baker Street Irregulars (where you hang out with playwright Ken Ludwig), or follow the feminist collective Baker Street Babes, you’re probably not all that deep into the Sherlock Holmes mythos, and might not have read, in high school or ever, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic 1902 who-done-it, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” That was me as I prepared for the opening night of Harlequin Productions’ “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” at Harlequin Productions’ State Theater. Totally surprised to find that the Timberland Library was even less deep into Sir Arthur’s iconic detective, holding only a few audiobooks in far-flung branches, I hurried over to Last Word Books, where, sure enough, there was a shelf full of vintage Sherlock Holmes, and three copies of “Hound.”
But I needn’t have hurried, I and needn’t have worried. Although familiarity with the quirky sensibilities and fantastical adventures of the legendary sleuth and his companion and scribe, Dr. John Watson, adds to the fun, for playwright Ken Ludwig the whole point of Baskerville is the sheer delight and comic possibilities that lie beyond the affectionate sending-up of a once wildly popular original. The theatrical melodrama of the story—the haunted baronial manor of the Baskervilles on the remote, fog-shrouded English moors, a bloodcurdling family curse featuring a gigantic hound attacking its victims, and the brainy, crafty Holmes and his good-natured sidekick Watson, working their way through a slew of suspicious characters and a labyrinth of clues in both Dickensian London and the creepy crawly countryside — is not hard to imagine on film as a crime thriller—several have been made — but on stage as a comedy? Ludwig, as committed a Sherlockian as there is, couldn’t resist the challenge: “My hope is that “Baskerville is…not only a tale of fellowship and courage, but also an adventure in theater making itself!”
By that measure, Harlequin Productions masterful director Corey McDaniel, and the entire cast design and production teams, and crew, get the highest marks. First, let me start with “the entire cast.” Role-doubling shows are not new to Harlequin—to name just two, there was Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” with eight actors covering 38 roles, staged in 2013, and “39 Steps” with 4 actors and 40 roles in 2015. So you could say that “Baskerville’s” 5 actors (Russell Mathews, Nick Hall, Eleise Moore, John Serembe, Xander Layden) playing close to 40 characters builds on a tradition, with its funhouse full of accents (a nod to Marianna de Fazio, dialect coach), endless quick-change costume, hair, and makeup designs (high five to Kathleen Anderson), clean and clever scenic design (Bruce Haasl) and scenic change artistry (Gerald B. Browning), quick-fingered lighting and sound design (Olivia Burlingame and Keith Jewell). And we’re only naming a few of the key players who make this show dance across the State Theatre stage.
And dance it does, with an unending flow of transformations that are themselves so much of the fun, not least because the staging, and the actors themselves, invite the audience to be in on the joke. Russell Mathews is our dashing, fearless Sherlock Holmes, charismatic and in command whether he’s ensconced in his Baker Street living room “smoking” his pipe, sleuthing in the city, or out on the moors. Nick Hall’s Watson, more earthbound and upright, is a perfect character foil to Holmes. And that’s it for the leads, who must lead while possibly being upstaged at any given moment by the other three members of the cast as they move in and out of costume and character in the blink of an eye. Eleise Moore, who graced last season’s “Fun Home” as Medium Alison, brings super-sized comedic chops to, among others, the lovely, ingenue manqué Miss Stapleton, the creepy, linguistically challenged Mrs. Barrymore, the mysterious Laura Lyons, and the eager London street kid assisting Holmes and Watson. John Serembe, who in his spare time designed the wonderful and at times very funny scene-setting projections, is, to name a few, the business-like Dr. Mortimer, who brings news of criminal goings-on in Devonshire to Holmes, the Lurch-like Barrymore, caretaker of the Baskerville estate, and the shifty, butterfly-catching neighbor, Stapleton. Xander Layden, when he is not a scullery maid and a host of others, is twangy cowboy Sir Henry Baskerville, the Texan who is heir to the Baskerville estate, just in from his home on the range to stake his claim.
Don’t get me wrong about the novel—“The Hound of the Baskervilles” is a great read, and Last Word Books may have a few copies left. But for an “adventure in theater making itself,” theater magic itself, that will take children of all ages on a giddy, breath-taking, uproarious ride, over, under, behind, and through the fourth wall, stopping at nothing that does not surprise, astonish, and delight you, get thee to the beautiful State Theatre, where the only bad seat in the house is no seat. But there’s no time to waste, because “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” is on a very short leash, closing on February 11th. Time flies, whether you’re having fun or not. Better to have some fun—go see “Baskerville”!
Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery at the State Theater
7:30 p.m. Feb. 2, 3, 4
2:00 p.m. Feb. 5, 8
7:30 p.m. Feb. 8, 10, 11
Harlequin Productions, State Theater, 202 4th Avenue East, Olympia
$28 – $43
Feb. 4, Feb. 9 – Pay What You Choose
Rush Tix – $21.50, $5 for teens
* Members of the Actor’s Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States
Photos by Shanna Paxton Photography.