Review: Stellar performances, direction make ‘Baskerville’ a hilarious ride

Our attraction to the Victorian super sleuth Sherlock Holmes shows no signs of waning, though the character’s resurgence in the form of various American and British film and television adaptations has been underway for a good five years.

Amid this resurgence, in 2015 Ken Ludwig (best known for writing “Lend Me a Tenor”) penned “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” a melodramatic farce surprisingly faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1902 novel “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Performed not unlike the Hitchcock adaptation for stage, “39 Steps,” three actors play 40 or so characters in addition to the two actors who embody Sherlock and Watson.

Todd Espeland, director of the current production at The Kalamazoo Civic, describes it as “equal parts thrilling adventure mystery and screwball comedy.” Though it suffers from excess exposition and those not familiar with the original story may get a bit lost in the narrative, the script is both smart and silly, if not terribly suspenseful. With imaginative direction, clever design, and a stellar cast, this show is a delight — a rare, serendipitous event in which community theater talent is so strong, it feels like a professional production.

Comedy in general, but effective farce in particular, is all in the timing. And this remarkable cast of five is a well-oiled machine. With seemingly infinite costume changes, quick scenes and rapid fire transitions between scenes, they never miss a beat and create maximum hilarity.

Much of which is physical, to the extent that blocking is often like choreography. In one of many absurd and beautiful moments, Sherlock and Watson chase after a one-dimensional carriage with a spinning wheel, running in place, as if in a cartoon, or perhaps a silent film.

The overall design is wonderfully creative. A wall of carved wood panels and a gauzy scrim create an elevated stage as well as a place for five visible “foley artists” to create the sound effects for the show — with a metal sheet, wood blocks, various percussive instruments and whistles. The action, from Holmes’s study to London street scenes, to the moors, to a hotel lobby to a mansion in the countryside and more, all happens downstage, and with shifts in lights (AnnMarie Miller), set pieces (David Kyhn), period costumes (Barbara B.Moelaart) and characters to delineate the various places.

And therefore the wonderful and often ridiculous characters are the rightful focus. They’re so tremendously delightful, in fact, that whether or not you’re keeping up with the plot hardly matters.

Robert Davidson is an excellent Sherlock Holmes, fully convincing in the role with an authoritative voice and persona. Benjamin Hooper is a marvelous Watson, goofy and bumbling yet insightful. He has the most time and interaction with the other characters throughout the play, and his presence and choices allow them to be magnified.

And it’s the other three actors who play the remaining 40 characters that really get to shine. Sarah Lynn Roddis deftly shifts from Mrs. Hudson to an errand boy to a nurse to the ingenue to a weird caretaker’s wife who transposes w’s for v’s. Each character is nuanced and funny as all get-out. She’s a comic genius. Dustin Morton D.C. also plays seemingly infinite hysterical characters, including one in drag, and absolutely matches Roddis’s energy and excellence. Taras Berezowsky is fantastic as the larger-than-life gun-toting boot-donning Texan for whom the “big ol’ hound sounds like hogwash.” All of them get all of the accents right, from Castilian to Cockney.

Laughs are what this show is ultimately about, though it’s also remarkably artful. With a cast of Kalamazoo’s finest amateur actors, Director Todd Espeland and the Kalamazoo Civic cast and crew have pulled off a professional quality production that’s wonderfully intelligent and an awful lot of fun.

Hounds of Baskerville
Kalamazoo Civic Theatre
Jan. 12-27