BWW Review: BASKERVILLE - A SHERLOCK HOLMES MYSTERY at Austin Playhouse
BASKERVILLE playwright Ken Ludwig rightly admits to writing muscular comedies. His work includes the charming, slap-stick/farce comedy LEND ME A TENOR and the popular situational broad comedy that brought Carol Burnett back to Broadway, MOON OVER BUFFALO. Ludwig's BASKERVILLE is the same sort of fluff - but before you overthink where this review is headed, make no mistake: broad, slap-stick, empty calorie, muscular comedy is in no way to be considered an easy out for any director or actor worth their salt. This is a particular style, and a style not to be frowned upon by the faint of heart. Furthermore, it doesn't hurt that producing these kinds of comedies works for bringing in audiences. Such it was on opening night at Austin Playhouse for their production of Ludwig's BASKERVILLE.The title here should provide some clue (pun intended) as to the plot of this comedy caper. And yes, the infamous Sherlock and Dr Watson are involved. In case you missed the countless versions of Baskerville offered up since 1902, here's the short of it: Sir James Mortimer asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate the death of his friend Sir Charles Baskerville, who died of an apparent heart attack. Mortimer is suspicious because Sir Charles died with a look of terror on his face and there were footprints of a hound near his dead body. Also, his family is said to be cursed since before the English Civil War. Sherlock and Watson take on the case, treading through the frightful foggy moors alongside Baskerville's heir Henry from Canada, wait, scratch that, Texas, in this version. Along the way they encounter sassy desk clerks, babies, the Barrymores, escaped murderers, and a cast of over thirty characters, played in this case, by two other actors. Sherlock fans take note though, Ludwig stays true, perhaps too true, to the story: Henry still falls for Beryl Stapleton, whose "brother" is indeed a bad guy; there is a hound involved, and Sherlock - well, it's a mystery, so I won't spoil it here.
BASKERVILLE at its most basic is entirely Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of The Baskervilles performed on steroids, and the audience is in on the joke. It's the exact "muscular" comedy Ludwig claims to write. And here's where the play gets its flavor. Sherlock (sardonically played in this production by Jason Newman) and (Ben Wolfe's earnest) Watson, are surrounded by a relentlessly changing set and a cornucopia of characters - all of them played by three other actors (Marie Fahlgren, Stephen Mercantel and Zac Thomas). It's as if Greater Tuna collided with Sherlock Holmes, and the audience is in on the joke.
While Zac Thomas gets a bit of a break and is only tasked with playing a few, Marie Fahlgren and Stephen Mercantel are left to play all the remaining thirty-something characters. The premise of the show won't work unless these two can pull it off, and the pair do so in this production in great fashion. Thomas, Fahlgren and Mercantel understand this broad, scenery-chewing-exhausted-when-the-show-is-over requirement Ludwig calls on his actors to provide in BASKERVILLE. They're tasked with playing characters AND being-themselves-playing-characters and we're all in on the joke. Falgren is particularly hysterical as Barrymore's wife, and her portrayal in this case is not so much a cheap ripoff so much as an homage to Cloris Leachman's Frau Blucher (insert horse whinny and "walk this way" here). Stephen Mercantel must be beyond satiated every night after eating up so much scenery - in particular as a hilarious desk clerk and the butterfly chasing Stapleton. The phrases "eating up the scenery" and "cheap ripoff" might constitute a bad review, but this is BASKERVILLE in Ludwig's world, and that turns everything on its head.
In director Don Toner's production, Wolfe's Watson and Newman's Sherlock are solid and reliable in the face of everything, including the set, falling to pieces around them. This felt like a safe and neutral choice, though. I found myself pining for these two to dramatically hold to their normalcy as the play progressed, since as Ludwig said it himself - "in a way, the play is meant to be as much about theatre as it is about two guys named Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson." Instead, they seemed flat in the face of such shenanigans going on around them. This is a particular challenge for these two though, as Ludwig has stuck so solidly to the original story, it's harder for them to engage in the general antics around them.
The set also becomes a kind of character in BASKERVILLE, and while budgeting is understandable, I'd have enjoyed seeing a few more set pieces, some props could've flown in, a few more purposefully missed cues, a couple of costuming flaws caused by a relentless pace. It's the kind of production (if done well) one can excusably throw the entire kitchen sink at and see what sticks without hurting a thing. This is not to say BASKERVILLE isn't a solid production, because it is. However, I'd love to see all these actors unleashed. This is the kind of play that lends itself to getting bigger over the course of a run, so perhaps this is what will happen.
BASKERVILLE is a rollicking bit of fun, especially for the mystery fans among us. There seems a weighty sense of reality in the climate of late - could be it's the residue from a Presidential election year. As the holidays approach, perhaps the very thing we can all use is some light weight comedy to lean in to. BASKERVILLE is just that production.
BASKERVILLE - A SHERLOCK HOLMES MYSTERY by Ken Ludwig
November 18 - December 18, 2016
No performance on Thanksgiving, November 24
Austin Playhouse at ACC's Highland Campus
6001 Airport Blvd., Austin, TX 78752