Comedy, mystery and Benedict Cumberbatch — well, two out of three ain’t bad.
The English actor who has helped repopularize Sherlock Holmes in recent years won’t be part of the cast when Baskerville opens at the Stanley, but a satisfyingly Sherlockian mystery and plenty of laughs ensure a good time will be had by all.
Written by Tony Award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig, Baskerville is a stage-bound take on one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous Holmes adventures, The Hound of the Baskervilles. The third Holmes novel, first published in 1902, finds Holmes and his trusty companion Dr. Watson investigating mysterious goings-on in the English countryside, and determined to save the latest heir to the Baskerville line.
The twist in Ludwig’s version, first produced in early 2015, is the addition of heaps of comedy, supplied by the supporting cast of characters — more than 40 roles, played by just three actors.
Auditions for the Arts Club production were held earlier in the year.
“I just brought in people I knew had really good comedic skills, are naturally funny people, are really good at English accents,” said director John Murphy. “There’s a Spanish, Swedish and German accent as well.”
The director says it was also important that cast members have “a lot of grace under pressure in terms of running around, sweating like crazy, changing a costume and coming on as a completely different character with a completely different mood, and able to pull it off.”
Alex Zahara, a mainstay of the Vancouver theatre scene in the 1990s before venturing into TV and movies, stars as Holmes.
“He’s perfect for the role,” Murphy said. “He’s a super dynamic actor, he looks great for the role, he’s got the intelligence, the intensity.”
Mark Weatherley is Watson. “He’s a great stage vet, he’s done shows for the Arts Club over the past 20 years. He’s very funny, but also very dry and very straight. He’s the character who grounds the whole play.”
It falls to Lauren Bowler, Kirk Smith, and Mike Wasko to handle the rest of the characters. “They’re all very funny, natural comedians, and chameleons as well. And they’re incredibly good at accents. It’s wonderful to watch those guys.”
Although much of the enjoyment of Baskerville is in the supporting characters, the mystery itself is satisfying.
“Absolutely, the mystery is there,” Murphy said. “And there’s a real gothic element to the original story that I’m trying to bring out. Conan Doyle said in A Study in Scarlet (the first Holmes novel) ‘without imagination there is no horror.’ So I’m taking every opportunity I can to engage the audience’s imagination.”
One method is to use shadow puppetry in a section where a character tells the story of one of the Baskervilles, Sir Hugo, and the notorious hound thought to be exterminating the Baskerville line.
“It’s such an elemental, childlike, imaginative exercise,” Murphy said. “If we can get the audience into that headspace where their imagination is cranked up and running on eight cylinders, where they can believe that shadow puppets are real, they can possibly believe that the hound is real. Maybe the hound of the Baskervilles is really more than just a story.”
Besides shadow puppets and costume changes, Baskerville’s mood and setting will be accented by video and props.
“There are all sorts of moving pieces involved,” Murphy said.
The production that comes closest to it in terms of logistics is The Santaland Diaries, he says.
That show “has 600 lighting sound and visual cues. I would say this has less cues but is more ambitious in its movement. There’s someone who flies in the show, there’s rigging, there’s one projector in the front, two projectors in the back, there’s a large scrim that’s 20 feet by 12 feet, there’s a smaller scrim, all on wheels. There’s just so much going on. It’s definitely up there as one of the most complicated shows I’ve directed. Which I love.”
The only thing missing is Cumberbatch, whose depiction of a contemporary Holmes in the TV series Sherlock has helped renewed interest in the detective.
“He (Sherlock Holmes) is just a fascinating character,” Murphy said. “There have been so many film versions of him, going back to Basil Rathbone, and stage versions of him. There’s this version of Baskerville, there’s another one with just three actors. It’s definitely something in the collective unconscious that’s going on now, that there’s a spike in interest.”