By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Simplicity itself!” declares Mr. Sherlock Holmes, that arrogant master of keen observation and logical deduction, totting up the clues on a stray walking stick at the outset of Baskerville.
Well, yes and no. As the detective’s stalwart assistant Dr. Watson knows full well, simplicity is rarely simple — either in the detection biz or theatre.
The giddy entertainment that follows, by notable farceur Ken Ludwig (Lend Me A Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo), lets a cast of five favourite Edmonton actors and a crack team of sound, costume, set and lighting pros loose on a classic genre. And lets us watch as they dismantle its manifold complications into every mouldy cliché, on a virtually bare stage — and then assemble them into a spoof of high-speed multi-character theatrical ingenuity. Witness John Kirkpatrick’s production, currently running in circles and other configurations at the Mayfield.
The story at their mercy is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s moody Victorian mystery The Hound of the Baskervilles, set on the Devonshire moors, and assorted locales between there and 221B Baker Street. The great deductionist and the good doctor, as you may recall, are called upon to solve the baffling case of the legendary hell-hound with the appetite for Baskerville flesh.
As Dr. Watson (Ashley Wright), stolid but star-struck, assures us, it is “the greatest and most dangerous case” of Holmes’s career. The man himself (George Szilagyi) takes a loftier tone vis-à-vis the prospective client lurking outside his Baker St. address: “can he relieve the tedium of our existence?” This is, of course, a question that you might well ask yourself before an evening out at the theatre.
And although this isn’t a sterling script by any means — its targets are as well-handled as the door to the Women’s at intermission — the answer is yes.
Baskerville isn’t so much a multi-doored farce — since the requisite doors are wheeled on and off in full view — as it is the work of a farceur fooling around with the idea of farce. The real fun isn’t figuring out who-dunnit or what-, it’s seeing Kirkpatrick’s playful stagecraft, and the jokey inspirations of a bunch of real pros unleashed on very well-trampled material.
The style will remind you of The 39 Steps, staged by Kirkpatrick with hilariously scrambling minimalism at the Mayfield six seasons ago. That production was more impressive, as it catapulted on a shoestring off the Hitchcock spy thriller and the John Buchan novel. The theatrical tread on the Sherlockian murder-mystery genre has been worn a lot thinner by constant usage, for one thing.
Daniela Masellis’s design is an amusing kind of frantic storybook, double-framed and crammed with cut-out props. Doors and lamp posts are dragged on and offstage in full view, ditto street and town signs, railway stations, lighted windows, boxes at the opera, front desks of provincial hotels that get turned around to be interiors. Hansom cabs run by, propelled by visible legs and invisible sounds of hoofs. Fog appears, with astute commentary (“Damn this fog!”) and Masellis’s atmospheric lighting to match.
Dave Clarke’s excellent sound design revels in the musical accoutrements of period melodrama, from the Wagnerian to the Hollywoodian, plus classic creaking of doors, mysterious howls of canine and human provenance, etc.
And this aural jokiness is reflected in the acting style. In the lanky, elegant figure of George Szilagyi, born to wear a deerstalker, the production has found an excellent Sherlock Holmes. He veers abruptly between the signature languid ennui, and hand-flapping bustles of cogitation. He’s says intensely inane things about “a foe worthy of our steel,” and then sulks about missing obvious vital clues.
Ashley Wright is a droll and convincing Watson, leading forward to catch the drift, earnest and a half-step behind as he delivers poetic annotations. Ah, the moors, “a landscape that will seduce you with its morbid beauty,” he says savouring his moment of narration.
Three very busy actors, Amber Lewis, Kevin Corey and Chris Bullough play everybody else in this preposterously complicated enterprise. Quick-changes of Leona Brausen’s fanciful costumes, absurd wigs, hats, and facial hair fly by in the character parade, along with outrageous accents, silly walks, postures, genders.
Nothing is too cheesy to be included in this pageant of the shameless. There’s a walking-this-way joke; there’s a German joke (“Bitte.” “More than bitte, it’s downright freezing….”). The custodians of Baskerville Hall, a sinister one-armed butler (Corey) and his wife (Lewis) with a Scandinavian accent you could cut a herring on, are lifted right out of Young Frankenstein. There’s a ridiculous Spanish innkeeper (Corey), an obsessive naturalist (Corey), a breathless fair maiden (Lewis).
And, as both Lestrade and the heir to the Baskerville fortune who, for some reason, is a Texan — “Y’all got anyone out here I can shoot?” — Bullough is highly amusing. The moment when he plays both, running back and forth between hats held aloft, is a highlight.
Quantity and speed of transformations, not verbal wit or suspense (both in skimpy supply), is the thing here. The point of Baskerville is that the cast is too small for the plot. The scenes that linger are by definition too long. Baskerville has attention deficit; it feels a bit like skit night at a theatre party.
In the execution nothing about this is elementary my dear Watcher. You’re seeing theatre pros at play. All good unsustainable fun.
Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre
Written by: Ken Ludwig
Directed by: John Kirkpatrick
Starring: George Szilagyi, Ashley Wright, Amber Lewis, Kevin Corey, Chris Bullough
Running: through April 2
Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca