Did you know murder can be funny? I had my ideas on the matter for sure, but the fact it can be side-splitting, laugh-out-loud funny was certainly a new way to look at it.
Oh, and to clarify: I’m talking about a play—a murder mystery, to be exact. Based off what might be the most famous murder mystery ever, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of Baskerville,” Big Dawg is staging Ken Ludwing’s “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” just in time for All Hallow’s Eve. It’s certainly one of the better-known ones. World-renowned Sherlock Holmes takes the case of the hell beast stalking the moors. Big Dawg sets it ablaze as a part of their season, jumping from drama to comedy and back again—never missing a beat in quality. Under the skills of director Josh Bailey, they take the morbid subject of foul murder and inject it with high-octane comedic energy. It only seems right Big Dawg would stage a show about a big dog (I’m not the only one to pick up on that irony right?). “Baskerville” offers a zany take on the world’s greatest detective that twists and turns into a fun evening of theatre.
The play is an outstanding reimagining of the aged story, and does a flawless job of presenting classic Holmes’ tropes with clever deduction and layers upon layers of ominous characters. It also pairs it seamlessly with a break-neck pace and loads of humor of all varieties. It easily could be mistaken for something which crawled out of the brain of Monty Python’s “Flying Circus.”
The hook of the humor is set early and to a perfect pitch, as Sir Charles Baskerville (Atwood Boyd, in his first of many roles) is set upon by the horrendous hound. Boyd’s running in place is a sign of sight-gag heaven the audience has entered. Few comedies will leave many laughing from start to finish; here, audiences will be doing their best to hamper laughter as to not miss the next joke.
Upon entering, the audience (which was a sold-out house when I attended) is treated to a drab looking Baskerville moors. Though its colors don’t really pop, they are detailed to a masterful degree. It’s yet another out-of-this-world scenic design by Donna Troy—the touches of silver she gives to the gray fog allows a three-dimensional feeling to accrue and the fog seems to roll across the stage. Yes, the fog machine used during the production lets the effect be present in a practical way. As well, there is an awesome funhouse-like set, designed by Lee Lowrimore, which makes for surprising transformations, given the size of the venue. In establishing Holmes’ abode, the set really illuminates the play’s literary roots.
“Baskersville” is a quick play and requires audiences to keep up with its nonstop pace. Bailey has found and assembled the detective (Skip Maloney) and his sidekick the doctor John Watson (J. Robert Raines), as well as three other ensemble members (Atwood Boyd, Gina Gambony and Tamica Katzmann), all of whom embody almost 40 different roles between them. With each new role, actors swap everything from wigs to costumes, voices to gender, in a mad dash to never let the tempo drop. Though sometimes out of breath, they never let it touch the ground.
Boyd, though, spends the majority of the time as the inheritor to the Baskerville estate—a gun-toting Texan, Sir Henry Baskerville (damn fine mustache, dude). He brings a robust charm to the role, and his formed friendship with Dr. Watson over the course of the play is just sweet.
Katzmann springs around the stage in a frantic, controlled energy to each of her roles. Her standouts among the motley crew she creates are the conflicted love interest of Henry’s Miss Stapleton, the femme fatale of the story and the helpful street urchin, Cartwright. Her every appearance brings hilarity.
Gambony takes it upon herself to be the rogues’ gallery of the show—and I do mean the entire gallery. She plays most of the nefarious roles with a few nice folks sprinkled in for fun. Most of her stage time is spent as Stapleton, the rotten scoundrel. Between her leering eyes and creeping physicality, she creates a fantastic foil for the comical Sherlock Holmes. The marathon each actor runs is intense and should be applauded for being able to create so many different characters in a moment’s notice. The workout they get during the show left me winded.
What is a good mystery without a genius sleuth to get to the bottom of it all? Sherlock Holmes is a heroic figure I doubt needs any introduction. Novels of his exploits have been published since the late 1800s, and anyone who is not a reader can find Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch keeping the detective’s name popular in film and television. In Big Dawg’s production, audiences are presented with an older Holmes, and though aged, he never misses a beat or a clue. Maloney does a solid job of mixing Holmes’ skills of deduction with the wisdom of age. Shown to great example by his first scene, where he deciphers the ownership of a cane brought to him, it sets up a classic Holmes fans will recognize. It’s the casting of an older actor which really lets Holmes’ abilities shine. Each plan he hashes comes off as a learned trick he has added to his bag, instead of something he’s pulling from thin air. It’s an interesting, successful take for the legendary role.
Making up the other half of the dynamic duo of the Victorian era is J. Robert Raines as Dr. John Watson. Raines straight up owns the show. Watson is something of a documentarian for Holmes, so it’s his point of view from which the audience understands the plot. It makes him something of a de facto lead of the play. While that could have led him to being the “straight man” amongst the loonies, he shares the stage with Raines and find all the right notes to be equally as funny, as well as a very traditional Watson. I could very well see him in a more serious, dark take on Sherlock Holmes. His use of both physical and verbal comedy is on point and on full display.
Murder and laughter gets covered in Big Dawg Productions’ latest gift to the stage “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery.” It’s a great mix of all the forms of humor crammed into one show, which is ready and willing to crack up Wilmington audiences.