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Theater review: "Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery”

The Barn Theatre building near Augusta, Michigan
Andy Robins
The Barn Theatre building near Augusta, Michigan

The Barn Theatre’s “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” offers a comic take on the well-known detective’s adventures. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

Ken Ludwig is one of America’s best practitioners of farce. Several of his plays, such as “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Moon Over Buffalo,” have enjoyed successful productions in southwest Michigan and are surefire laugh generators.

Some might want more from a Ludwig script than “Baskerville” offers. The play isn’t quite the material of farce and lacks the acceleration and cohesion of Ludwig’s other works.

But the show is filled with wild comic action, and a twisted plot in which Sherlock Holmes must solve the mysterious murder of Sir Charles Baskerville. Most important for Barn Theatre summer audiences, it offers a lot of laughter.

This entertaining evening is filled with storms on the moors, fog on the bogs, the baying of devilish hounds, dark manor houses, shifting character identities, and, of course, a few murders.

A key element setting this show apart is the zany way the story is told. Director Brendan Ragotzy’s production offers this contract to its viewers: “We know we’re doing a play. You know we’re doing a play. So, suspend your disbelief, laugh along with us as we spoof traditional stage conventions, and enjoy the ride.” And, for the most part, we do.

One such convention is the use of two moving six-by-eight-foot flats representing segments of a stone wall. They glide seamlessly across the stage then stop to mask entrances, cover exits of fallen bodies, or conceal sinister figures lurking behind them.

As the show progresses, the two pieces of scenery develop minds of their own. They seem to evolve into something akin to mute characters whose role is to underscore the idea that Baskerville Hall and the surrounding area have their own rules apart from nature.

At the center of this whirlwind of intrigue and shifting suspicions stands Eric Parker as the resolute and unflappable Sherlock Holmes. Parker’s measured performance brings welcome rationality to times that are, at least temporarily, out joint.

Patrick Hunter, as Holmes’ companion Doctor Watson, provides some well-timed comic relief. Hunter also does justice to the play’s extended narrative passages, in which Watson sets up the storyline and the shifts in time and place.

But the real fun of this show is generated by the three actors who portray several dozen roles, including murder suspects, heirs to the Baskerville fortune, and those who inhabit the manor and area around it.

With many quick changes, dialects, wigs, and beards, Charlie King, John Jay Espino, and Melissa Cotton Hunter create a local population that’s fully developed, three dimensional, and colorful.

King plays a Spanish bell hop, a menacing butler, and a buck-toothed butterfly chaser skipping merrily around the moors with net in hand.

Espino’s Sir Henry Baskerville, the family fortune’s heir apparent, presents an “aw shucks,” good ol’ boy from Texas. This character’s charm stems from the vulnerability Espino brings to the role, as Sir Henry adjusts to the manners of the English countryside while fending off threats to his life.

Melissa Cotton Hunter is a gifted performer adept at executing physical or verbal idiosyncrasies that set her memorable characters apart. One of these is a deadpan maid with a German accent, who, with candelabra in hand, references numerous “murder wictims” out on the moors.

Ken Ludwig set out to create a playground for performers and a vehicle for laughter with this show. There are sight gags, genuine belly laughs, and some cheap, silly laughs. But they are laughs, nonetheless. And because the actors seem to have great fun with “Baskerville,” both Ludwig and the Barn Theatre have succeeded.

A former station manager of WMUK, Gordon Bolar is now the station's theater reviewer.
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