THEATER REVIEW: Loose tale of sleuths’ slapstick unleashed in ‘Baskerville’

“Baskerville” / Theater Barn

“WHAT IS IT ABOUT?” If you’ve just finished reading a book or come from the theater, someone is likely to ask you that.

Ostensibly, “Baskerville,” currently playing at the Theater Barn, is about Sherlock Holmes and his friend Dr. Watson; and the title promises that the play will be some sort of adaptation or takeoff on Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous novel “Hound of the Baskervilles.”

While it is very smart theater economics for a playwright to piggyback on something famous when creating a new work, Ken Ludwig has ended up making “Baskervile” mainly about something else. Riding on the bones of a Sherlock Holmes story is merely a means.

The play is indeed anchored by Holmes and Watson, two traditional characters, ably and traditionally acted in this production by Matthew Tyler (Sherlock) and Aaron Holbritter (Watson). Around them flows some wonderful, instructive silliness.

A multitude of other characters are divided up between three actors. At the Barn, Ryan Palmer, Alec Lee, and Liz Woodard skillfully get it done.

Ludwig clings to Doyle’s plotty tale, but all narrative points are exposed with extraordinary speed–in author and director shorthand. The result is really funny. They use an axe to smash up “the frozen sea within us.” (Yes, yes. I stole that metaphor from Kafka.) In this case, the frozen sea is our rigid assumption about how a theater-story should be delivered.

The play’s shorthand aspect starts with elegant, rather impressionistic photographs that appear on the back wall. Changes of scene are instantaneous. In approximately one second the audience is oriented in period and place–a noticeable contrast to, let us say, the Metropolitan Opera, where tons of scenery is lugged around to evoke them.

At first, it may be disconcerting that the objects in front of these photographs are so spare and homely, but that is part of the “about.” Doors and windows, rocks, etc. whip around the stage as if on roller skates, pushed by unapologetic stagehands and sometimes passed at high speeds between them.

Narrative points are scored in a flash. For example, an actor flicks on from the wings, lies on the floor playing dead for a bit, is identified as a murdered corpse, gets up and rushes off. (It takes about five seconds.) This scene could have consumed minutes galore.

With well-honed comic timing and sharp detail, Lee and Palmer in particular become a source of surprises and delights. Woodard chimes in with a hilarious “Tosca” pantomime and a Monty Python silly-walk for her kooky-spooky character, all of which is a happy stretch for an ingénue.

Among the many other examples of theater-shorthand is the shortest, keenest one: A scene is happening down near the edge of the stage. Oh dear! Another character is required and we’re out of actors! From behind, someone changes a hat on the superb Alec Lee. For a brief moment he is someone else. Again the hat is exchanged and the actor returns to his first character. Aha! Does that drag you out of the story? No, that is the story.

Director Phil Rice is the hero, the star, the art-maker of this production. His direction flows around the stage like warm oil, and, in spite of its sweet speed and choreographic precision, it appears effortless–not in the least like some snobby post-modern statement about theater.

These cartoon characters and their low-but-fresh comedy are in the hands of some sophisticated people (especially Ludwig, Rice, Lee, and Palmer). The play’s a clever conceit, a giggle-maker, a sharp axe on our inner ices; and that’s what it’s about.

At the Theater Barn, New Lebanon, the run lasts through June 30. Get tickets at or telephone 518-794-8989.

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