It's always hard to tell when a clever idea becomes a genre. But it appears there is a theatrical genre budding that is built around plays where multiple (and often wacky) secondary roles are played by just a couple performers, as they swirl around the "lead" actors. Let's call it "The Revenge of the Bit Player" genre.
Indeed, those playing "supporting roles" in the laboriously titled Ken Ludwig's Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, now at the Cleveland Play House, are pretty much the entire reason to see this show. A trio of talented folks plays all the ancillary characters, as they interact with either Dr. Watson or Sherlock Holmes himself. Their characterizations are at times derivative and not always fully realized, but their antics soar above the frequently pedestrian Ludwig script.
This play follows the trail trod by The 39 Steps, a stage parody of the Hitchcock film in which actors playing supporting characters change roles at the flip of a hat or the half-turn of a body. When done energetically and riskily, as it was in The 39 Steps last year at Blank Canvas Theatre, the result is hilarious and at times almost levitating.
There are fewer of those moments in this CPH show, due to the fact that director Brendon Fox keeps tight control of the proceedings, sacrificing inspired improvisation for clockwork timing. But for those who haven't seen this kind of exercise, it serves as a pleasant introduction to a genre that is sure to see more entries in the future.
As for Baskerville, it stays quite true to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's source material, The Hound of the Baskervilles. But if you happen to be a devotee of in-depth characterizations of Sherlock Holmes himself, and are fond of renditions by actors such as Basil Rathbone and Benedict Cumberbatch, you may be a bit disappointed, since this is not a Holmes-focused piece.
The first scene is delightful as Holmes (a properly stiff and egocentric Rafael Untalan) wields his famous deductive reasoning to identify the owner of a cane that has been left on the premises. Taken to extremes and played for laughs, this scene nicely sets up the tone of proceedings. But after this, Holmes virtually disappears until the end.
During most of this show, Sherlock's trusty aide Dr. Watson (an earnest Jacob James) prowls Baskerville Hall and the adjacent Scottish moors with a gaggle of folks who make up the bulk of the story. Thanks to the quick-change costumes designed by Lex Liang and several hard-working dressers (who get a much-deserved curtain call), it's easy to keep all the multiple characters straight.
It begins when Dr. Mortimer visits 211B Baker Street and informs our intrepid detective duo that Sir Charles Baskerville was found dead, the victim of a family curse involving a sociopathic pooch. This echoes the death of a forebear, Hugo Baskerville, who met a similar fate. As a result, Mortimer is worried about the safety of Henry Baskerville, Sir Charles' heir, who is arriving from his home in Texas. At that point the game — as they say — is afoot.
While Holmes trots off to attend to business elsewhere, Dr. Watson hauls himself off to the casa in question, where he is greeted by the mansion's servants, who bear a curious resemblance to Igor and Frau Blucher from Young Frankenstein. And this offers a bit of insight as to the playwright's habits and talents. Setting aside Ludwig's rather needy insistence on infusing his name into the titles of his shows, he does display skill at weaving 19th century-style language into volleys of ear-pleasing riffs. But his jokes are often predictable or just fall a bit flat. Moreover, Ludwig often lifts comedy ideas from other sources and weaves them into his core story, which is also borrowed.
This leaves to the performers the responsibility of keeping this potentially ponderous theatrical effort airborne. And this they do quite reliably. Tall and lanky Evan Alexander Smith plays numerous roles including good ol' boy Henry Baskerville and Inspector Lestrade. Playing some of the female roles, and one young boy, is Nisi Sturgis, and she crafts wonderfully different and distinct characters. Whether she is Beryl Stapleton who is love-struck by Henry or a young London street tough who is helping Holmes and Watson ferret out information, she triggers laughter with her sharp timing.
Probably the hardest working actor on stage is Brian Owen, who generates giggles in a galaxy of guises including the sedate Dr. Mortimer; the daft and buxom wife of a hotel owner; the hotel's fey front desk clerk; the butterfly hunter Jack Stapleton, who is also Beryl's brother; and others too numerous to mention. Owen often seems on the verge of taking his characters to another, and even funnier, level. But he rarely does, and that's too bad since plays such as this benefit enormously from skilled actors being given the latitude, and the stage time, to improvise boldly on the characters they create.
That said, there are chuckles aplenty in this send-up of Sherlock—it's a bracing dose of silliness for the sometimes overly staid CPH audiences.