Reviewed by George Basler
Mystery is afoot in Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, which opened this past weekend (Oct. 27-30) at the Cider Mill Playhouse in Endicott. But the real mystery is why there aren’t more laughs.
Ken Ludwig, the playwright, has written some truly funny farces. One of them, Lend Me a Tenor, was given a first-rate production at the Cider Mill a couple of seasons ago. But his attempt to blend farce with a Sherlock Holmes mystery falls surprisingly flat much of the time. The play is only mildly amusing, at best, with stretches of dull exposition that slow the action.
The five-member Cider Mill cast, under the direction of Craig MacDonald, can’t be blamed. They’re energetic and make a game effort to coax merriment out of Ludwig’s play. The main problem is that Ludwig can’t seem to make up his mind if Baskerville is a mystery or a farce. As a result, it falls short in both categories.
In fairness, the audience seemed to be having a good time at the performance I attended. Other people at my table said they enjoyed it, but I was disappointed.
The play uses Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles as its source material. Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion, Dr. Watson, become involved in the case of Sir Charles Baskerville, whose mysterious death could be linked to a family curse. They travel to the Baskerville estate in Scotland to protect Henry Baskerville, Sir Charles’ heir.
Throughout the action, they run into a series of eccentric and nefarious characters, including the oddball couple who are the caretakers of the estate, a seemingly wacky neighbor and his flirtatious daughter, two comic newsboys, a mysterious figure on the moors, etc.
The play’s main conceit is that all the roles, except for Holmes and Watson, are played by only three actors (Daniel Mian, Bret Jaspers and Rachel Towne), who have to make numerous quick costume changes. The device is same as the one used in The 39 Steps, which the Cider Mill staged last season, but 39 Steps was much funnier.
Baskerville does have its moments of good physical comedy. Mian, Jaspers and Towne all do fine jobs in making the split-second changes required by their multiple roles. Especially funny was Towne’s spot-on send-up of the bizarre, to say the least, caretaker’s wife, and Mian’s portrayal of both the caretaker and Stapleton, the wacky next-door neighbor.
But the humor is undercut by cumbersome stretches when Holmes, Watson and the other characters fill in the details about the mystery. Keeping track of the plot underneath all the character transitions and costume changes is pretty near impossible, and, in the end, the mystery isn’t all that interesting.
Aundre Seals does a solid job in the role of Dr. Watson, making the befuddled character likeable and engaging. By contrast, James Taylor Odom as Sherlock Holmes is manic at times in his search for laughs. The character comes across, at times, as more of an overwrought adolescent than a cool, cerebral detective.
MacDonald’s direction is pretty pedestrian. He does an effective job moving the characters on, and off, the stage during their costume changes, but the plodding nature of the play has to be laid at this doorstep. A few more inventive touches would have been welcome.
Paul Radassao did a good job with the lighting and scenic design. Again, though, a few more special effects would have been welcome.
IF YOU GO: Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery will be performed at the Cider Mill Playhouse, 2 S. Nanticoke St., Endicott, through Nov. 13. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Ticket prices are $26 to $32. Call 748-7363, or order online at www.cidermillplayhouse.org.