Detective farce a riot at Mayfield

Baskerville Mayfield GigCity EdmontonWe’re going to get quite a bit of Ken Ludwig in Edmonton in the next while.

On March 4, the Citadel opens his Gershwin musical, Crazy For You – and in the meantime, until April 2, fans can see his comic take on the sleuth of 221B Baker Street at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre: Baskerville, a Sherlock Holmes Mystery.

Over the years the redoubtable Sherlock Holmes has suffered every conceivable indignity. According to Wikipedia, he has been featured in well over 700 films. Without a Clue, released in 1988, even floated Watson as the real detective. The showboating Sherlock got all the attention while Watson fluttered around in the background actually solving the case.

But Holmes has never had to come to grips with Ken Ludwig. The American comic playwright has had two big hits on Broadway, Lend Me a Tenor and Crazy For You, but in recent years his work has been designed for smaller regional venues and dinner theatres and he has been very successful at it. Who needs Broadway?

Note that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created these characters much to his everlasting distaste, is not even mentioned in the Mayfield’s title page – which is surprising in that Ludwig quite faithfully bases his comic play on Conan Doyle’s most popular Holmes mystery, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Some knowledge of the plot might be in order, but anyone who is familiar with the 1901 novel will not need any guideposts. Holmes’ (George Szilagyi) curiosity is peaked with a gruesome death at the Baskerville Country Estate. Apparently there is a hellhound loose on the moors. There are a number of other mysterious characters – you know the sort of stuff of Holmesian adventures: enigmatic servants, sinister neighbours, the woman the doomed Lord met in the middle of the night before he died and, somewhere out there on the haunted moors, an escaped convict. The young heir to the family fortune, who has just arrived from Texas, may be in some danger as well. So the famed detective sends Watson (Ashley Wright) off to investigate. The game is afoot and the stakes are high.

The play is directed on the Mayfield stage by John Kirkpatrick, a man perfectly at home in material that is often witty but generally as broad as a double-decker London omnibus. The cast is small – two actors play only the main characters, the other three (Amber Lewis, Kevin Corey and Chris Bullough) assume every other role – and there are some 35 of them. As in the Mayfield’s superlative (and superior) production of The 39 Steps a few years back, this leads to ample merriment as Kirkpatrick deftly finds all kinds of ingenious ways to have the actors change characters (and sex) instantaneously. Spin around 180 degrees – and you’re someone else. Lighting, wigs, accents, mannerisms and costumes are all used to people the stage with a large cast of Victorian stereotypes. At times actors are called upon to be on stage as two people at the same time. Says one, looking hapless while his cue to be someone else is heard while he is still on stage, mutters, “You’ve got to be kidding!” At one point a frantic Bullough plays two characters (one bearded – one not) just by sticking his head into various hats held by Sherlock himself. My favourite is Amber Lewis’ Scandinavian take on the sepulchral Frau Blucher with an accent as thick as Swedish rikadeller. She gets the best line of the play when she stops at the door and in high dungeon exclaims in an impeccable Swedish accent, “I could womit!” and exits.

Both principal actors are properly stiff-upper-lipped as the formidable deductive duo. Szilagyi as Holmes is well over six feet tall and briskly commands the stage. Wright’s Watson is a bit of a bumbler and steadfastly comic in his dedication to the case and quite oblivious to the silliness going on around him. Such as when the (dreaded) Grimpen Mire with its (dreaded) quicksand is mentioned, the characters freeze, the light on them turns green and there is a crack of thunder from the bowels of hell itself. That, of course, is repeated anytime it’s mentioned. It’s all in the timing and the company performs with the precision of the proverbial Swiss watch. Except for when things fall apart or the insane physical demands just can’t possibly be met – and often those moments are the funniest ones.

Kirkpatrick also manages to balance the balmy goings on with enough seriousness to keep the evening from descending into chaos. Well, most of the evening anyway.

The person who is probably having the most fun is sound design wiz Dave Clark, who shamelessly plunders all the Wagnerian, Waxmanish, Korngoldian musical horror tropes you’ve ever heard since Bela Lugosi first rose from the grave in 1931 on the Warner Brothers back lot.