It’s a storybook spring evening in early April, and the creative team behind the latest production at Raleigh Little Theatre is gathered in the lobby, thinking hard. They’re trying to figure out how to best characterize the company’s latest production: “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery.”
“It’s fair to call it a farce,” says director Jeremy Skidmore.
“Well, except it’s not like that recent Sherlock movie with Will Ferrell,” says actor Mary Rowland, who plays the titular detective in the new play. “I heard that’s hideous.”
“I think we could say it’s farce-slash-melodrama,” offers actor Laurel Ullman, a.k.a. Dr. John Watson.
“Ooh, that’s good – there’s some melodrama,” Rowland says. “But self-aware melodrama.”
“For me, it’s like Monty Python,” Skidmore says, to the instant satisfaction of everyone present. “That’s it! It’s Sherlock Holmes with a dash of Monty Python.”
It can be tricky to characterize a show like “Baskerville,” which will be staged April 12-28, and features the redoubtable Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is one of the most durable characters in popular culture, with Arthur Conan Doyle writing 60 different Holmes stories between 1887 and 1927. The various stage, film, TV and radio adaptions, over the years, may number in the thousands.
So when you’re bringing another Sherlock story to the stage, it’s helpful to have an accurate cultural signifier like Monty Python, that legendary British comedy institution of inspired goofiness. “Baskerville” is designed to be funny, frantic and a twinge surreal. Also like Python, the show deploys the comic tradition of gender-switching as Rowland and Ullman take over the roles of Sherlock and Watson.
“We haven’t changed the characters to female,” Ullman clarifies. “We’re female actors playing male characters.”
The five-person cast features three other Triangle area performers – Gus Allen, Kirsten Ehlert and Tony Hefner – who will play more than 40 supporting characters of varying genders, ages, professions, species and helpfulness. Some are there to assist Holmes and Watson, some are there to foil them. But one thing’s for sure: All three will be terribly busy.
RLT costume designer Jenny Mitchell said the production features more than 100 different outfits, hats, doohickeys and props. A quick look at the props table backstage suggests the controlled chaos that’s set to be unleashed onstage: Beside the piles of wigs and hats, there’s a tabletop full of carefully labeled props: a rope, a knife, a crucifix, a box of bandages, “Sir Henry’s Letter” and something that looks like a Victorian bicycle seat.
“The running joke in the theater business is that your costume change has to take less than 60 seconds to be considered fast,” Skidmore says. “There are about 20 costume changes in the show that are less than 60 seconds. The changes come faster and faster until at some point they start happening onstage. There just isn’t time, and the audience is let in on that. You know, it’s very wink-wink.”
As to the actual mystery at hand, “Baskerville” is based on “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” originally serialized in London’s The Strand Magazine in 1901. Playwright Ken Ludwig is known for his deft hand with both adaptations and farce. His first Broadway play “Lend Me a Tenor” won several Tony Awards, and he has transposed other famous books featuring literary stalwarts such as Tom Sawyer and The Three Musketeers.
Skidmore, the director, compares the “Baskerville” vibe to “The 39 Steps,” another classic stage adaptation based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film. (RLT mounted that show, too, just a few years back.)
Female Sherlock and Watson
Back in the lobby, the director and actors are recalling the new production’s own origin story with RLT executive director Charles Phaneuf. The decision to cast women as Sherlock and Holmes came relatively late in the planning process, Phaneuf says.
“Auditions for the roles were open to all performers, male or female,” he says. “Our production is one of the first to cast women in both the Sherlock and Watson roles.”
It’s not the first time for the iconic chraracters to be played by women. Lucy Liu is set to wrap her seven-season run as Dr. Joan Watson on CBS’ “Elementary” TV series, he points out. In an email, Phaneuf also points to “Miss Sherlock,” a Japanese drama on HBO Asia with two women leads as Holmes and Watson.
Rowan and Ullman say they’re having tremendous fun playing with the core dynamic between their two characters.
“Sherlock and Holmes are two sides of the same coin, almost like a person separated,” Ullman says. “Watson isn’t the crazy genius that Holmes is; he’s often grounding and narrating the story.”
“And Sherlock, he kind of needs Watson to be able to relate to regular people,” Rowland says with a chuckle. “These days, we might call him a sociopath, actually.”
Ullman says that “Baskerville” – with its comic choreography and quick changes – taps into the element of live theater that she values most as a performer.
“It’s exciting because we’re all just human beings, working with other human beings, in this one little chunk of time.” she says. “Things can go wrong. You can make a mistake and then it’s – how do you fix that mistake and still stay true to your character in the moment?
“Add that to the energy from the audience and you get something special and unique each time, each show.”
What: Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery”
When: April 12-28, Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m.
Where: Raleigh Little Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh
Cost: $28 with discounted tickets for students and seniors
Info: 919-821-3111 or raleighlittletheatre.org