Advertisements
ArtsATL

Your Source For The Arts In Atlanta

The Hound of the Baskervilles is not just one of the most famous Sherlock Holmes tales of all time but also one of the most popular works of fiction ever. This is largely because it brought about the return of the beloved sleuth from 221B Baker Street after he had been summarily killed off by author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Final Problem almost a decade earlier.

Ensemble members Robin Bloodworth (pictured), Gina Rickicki and Katie Tkel play a combined 40-plus characters over the course of two hours.

In fact, the success of the 1902 novel about spectral hellhound haunting in the English countryside led Conan Doyle to revive the character entirely, explaining that Sherlock only faked his death when he tumbled off the ledge of the Reichenbach Falls with his nemesis Dr. Moriarty.

So, then, it’s a rather fitting choice for Theatrical Outfit to pick this story, which brought back its protagonist from the dead, as the second show of its first season back since the pandemic killed the possibility of all live performance almost two years ago. (The company’s first official live show back was September-October’s An Iliad, another classic.)

Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, which runs through December 19, is well-known comedic playwright Ken Ludwig’s dialed-up retelling of the spectral canine caper on the moors. It keeps all the murder and superstition in place but injects farce and a kind of heightened theatrical self-awareness to the shenanigans on stage.

Ludwig is one of the most well-known and prolific playwrights working today, with 28 plays and musicals under his belt and a handful of awards, including Tonys for his best-known work, Lend Me a Tenor. He’s also intimately acquainted with new takes on famous mysteries, having adapted Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express at the behest of the Christie estate.

So, in Ludwig’s 2015 adaptation of Baskervilles, we follow Master Detective Sherlock Holmes (John Keabler) and his trusty companion Dr. John Watson (Lala Cochran) as they investigate some strange happenings out in the British boonies. The intrigue revolves around supernatural reports of a “gigantic hound” that may or may not have killed wealthy gentleman Sir Charles Baskerville. But, beyond those essential plot points (and eventual whodunit reveal), the piece begins to go off of the original’s tracks, bringing in absurd and often hilarious elements.

The primary way Ludwig pulls this off is to have the bulk of the characters (many of which have been added to the original novel’s sparse cast of local yokels) come alive by way of three ensemble members who play neither Watson nor Holmes. This means here that between the three of them, Robin Bloodworth, Gina Rickicki and Kathryn Tkel play a combined 40-plus characters over the course of two hours.

So, the game is afoot alright — and what a lot of feet they are!

This can be exceedingly fun when it works: For instance, there’s a train station scene which has Bloodworth sneeze in character, propelling him offstage, where he yells, “All aboard!” as the train conductor before coming back onstage to resume dialogue as the original character.

And the cast is more than up to the task throughout. In particular, Rickicki conveys an especially savvy grasp of the zany material and mines every laugh for all it’s worth, whether running randomly across the stage dressed as a crying infant or taking us for a long, meandering journey toward a Das Boot pun while chewing through scenery with a German accent worthy of Üter Zörker in The Simpsons.

Gina Rickicki “conveys an especially savvy grasp of the zany material and mines every laugh for all it’s worth,” notes ArtsATL critic Alexis Hauk.

Although Holmes and Watson are most often the straight men to the off-the-wall characters swirling all around them, they do get their own funny moments to shine. At times, Keabler sounds like he’s imitating Tony Curtis imitating Cary Grant in Some Like It Hot, which I suspect — given that expert dialect coach Elisa Carlson worked with the cast on accents — is probably meant to be that way.

Other aspects of Holmes’ well-known mannerisms and habits are exaggerated as well, like his addictive personality. “As a medical man, you have to admit that smoking is good for the health,” he declares enthusiastically to Watson while smoking three cigarettes and a pipe at the same time.

At another point, Holmes begins to don his famous deerstalker cap and pauses to ask Watson, “Do I really have to?” As the leads, Keabler and Cochran deliver solid, anchoring performances that in many ways are harder, since they’re there to balance out and set a foundation for the showier work by the multi-character-playing ensemble members. Throughout, it’s nice to watch all five of these talented professionals having a lot of fun, and the more they’re able to let loose as the show goes on, the more entertaining and gripping each scene is.

Also worth highlighting: the elegant, versatile stage design by Stephanie Busing, which allows trees to glide across the stage and blocks of walls to flip around to completely transform the setting and mood all on their own. The sound design by James Bigbee Garver punctuates the show with dramatic growls and howls. And Mary Parker’s moody lighting design gives us storms, ominous moonlight, and an ever-shapeshifting landscape.

It’s these sublime elements that make it all the more apparent when the nonstop madcap hijinks get a bit stuck in a boggy mire of uneven pacing. Because the fact is, if you’re going for farcical elements, it’s really better to consistently “commit to the bit” rather than going full force and then pulling back, which happened several times in the show. (It’s also possible this inconsistency could fade with more time in front of an audience.)

As directed by Shannon Eubanks, multiple scenes play out as almost note-for-note replications of well-known Monty Python sketches and Mel Brooks gags (notably, there’s a LOT of Young Frankenstein homage happening here). Unfortunately, that choice often comes across as more distracting than clever or fresh.

But back to the pacing piece. These kinds of shows (Charles Ludlam’s satirical The Mystery of Irma Vep springs to mind) rely on the magic trick of transformation. There’s a frenzied dance going on backstage that has to work as precisely as possible, getting more and more elaborate and lightning-quick until you’re left wondering, “How DID they pull that off?” 

This show stops just shy of taking us to that place of marvelment. But, given the joy with which Baskerville has been prepared and presented, and the dexterity of this cast, it’s tough to resist wanting to strap in for the entire ride, bumps and all.

::

Alexis Hauk has written and edited for numerous newspapers, alt-weeklies, trade publications and national magazines including Time, the AtlanticMental FlossUproxx and Washingtonian magazine. Having grown up in Decatur, Alexis returned to Atlanta in 2018 after a decade living in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City and Los Angeles. By day, she works in health communications. By night, she enjoys covering the arts and being Batman.

Donate Today

STAY UP TO DATE ON
ALL THINGS ArtsATL