The hound of the comic thrills

Clackamas Rep romps through Ken Ludwig's spoof of the Sherlock Homes mystery "Hound of the Baskervilles"

The man in the deerstalker hat and his biographer sidekick Dr. Watson live for the thrill of the hunt in Ken Ludwig’s screwball spoof of the most popular of Sherlock Holmes’ tales, Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery.

The whodunit of this play, which has just opened at Clackamas Repertory Theatre, is less about the butler, the shady neighbor or estranged relative, but rather the grist that lies in which of the five actors is playing which of the 40 or so characters at any particular time. The cast, directed by David Smith-English, ebbs and flows on and off stage in a contradance with lightning-quick changes into detailed costumes. If it wasn’t for the ease and energetic joy the cast carries as the pace increases over the performance, you might almost think you were at a hockey match, where players often lose a few pounds in sweat per game. The puck doesn’t stop there, as the audience lapses into a meta meta suspension of disbelief and the real laughs kick in. By the end of the play the timing is rapid-fire and off-the-hinges absurd. In one of the final moments two people play three characters locked in an embrace, trading off hats and lines like they live in a 4D funny mirror.

Dennis Kelly and John San Nicolas in Ken Ludwig’s Sherlock Holmes spoof. Photo: Travis Nodurft

This Sherlock Holmes (John San Nicolas) does not wear the long drawn face of a nicotine addict who also likes tight fluffy lines of cocaine to fuel his broad assumptions from few details. Ludwig’s Sherlock is a stable middle-class armchair-professor hired gun who probably in a few decades of literature will inspire a James Bond-type genius, but with the contrast of being unavailably sexy. Dr. Watson (Dennis Kelly) is the detective chasing skirts. Watson, as narrator and chronicler to his trusty flatmate, is also in hot pursuit of female affection and Holmes’s approval at every turn and twist of the plot. His high-cheekbone smile of satisfaction looks to be the result of years of good marks at boarding school.

The 19th century sensibility of Conan Doyle’s writing style and humor runs throughout the play. Holmes’s arrogance, inflexible etiquette, and Bohemian qualities birth snarky asides, such as his response in one of the first scenes: “Call off your spaniel who is clawing at my door with the zeal of a Christian!” Or the Texan (Mark Schwahn) who describes the setting of the moor: “Talk about gloomy. Reminds me of my mama’s funeral without the liquor.”

The script is a close adaptation of The Hound of Baskervilles, and its the stage directions make it madcap funny. This is not an evening of blue or black comedy that folds your abdomen into streaks of pain and your face into uncontrollable tears. Baskerville is a good wholesome merry-go-round escape. Ludwig’s lines poke fun at the Holmesian genre: “Holy cow, it’s like I walked into a dime store novel.”

Jayne Stevens is the one woman of the show. While Watson should be the focus of the play as narrator and the character with the most time in the spotlight, Stevens’ outnumbered performances to her male counterparts (Kelly, San Nicolas, Schwahn, Alex Fox) is nevertheless the polestar of Clackamas Rep’s production. For a few moments she’s a kind of ditsy petty aristocrat magpie falling into whomever’s arms; next she’s a sturdy and graceless Cockney delivery boy; then a stick-in-the mud Swedish maid buried in a thick pea soup fog of an accent; and all of a sudden a kind but caterwauling Scottish nurse.

There’s never been a time when dear readers or playgoers doubted a Holmes mystery not be solved. We’re all confident that the glowing beast of the English swamp will have a perfectly reasonable explanation. The trail the Baker Street private eyes leads them from the well-padded chairs of a cramped but comfortable Victorian parlor to the sleek refined desk of an international hotel to the all-about-business office of a typist for hire. In the background of Clackamas Rep’s set is a large projection screen moving like a zoetrope that flashes on locations, nods to the aesthetics of the age, and gives props to the frenetic tempo.

There’s a giddiness to the cast as the actors pull off the gags and play kooky characters. You can feel how much fun they’re having with the show. By the end, you’ll feel it, too.

*

Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery continues through July 23 at Clackamas Rep, in the Niemeyer Center of Clackamas Community College in Oregon City. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Responses.

  1. John says:

    RE: ” Ludwig’s Sherlock is a stable middle-class armchair-professor hired gun who probably in a few decades of literature will inspire a James Bond-type genius, but with the contrast of being unavailably sexy. Dr. Watson (Dennis Kelly) is the detective chasing skirts. Watson, as narrator and chronicler to his trusty flatmate, is also in hot pursuit of female affection and Holmes’s approval at every turn and twist of the plot. His high-cheekbone smile of satisfaction looks to be the result of years of good marks at boarding school.”
    What is it about my performance as Sherlock in this production that evokes middle-class? Is it the high-class dialect we’ve chosen to specifically differentiate him from Watson? Is it the stiff, upright manner of movement? Is it the fancy robe he wears around the house? As a minority actor I am excited to be playing this role, which I’ve never before seen performed by a minority performer, and all you can say about my performance as this elitist, eccentric, impossibly-intuitive superhero of a character is that he’s “a stable middle-class armchair-professor hired gun”? While you can tell just by looking at Watson’s FACE that he got high marks at boarding school? These comments are not only widely off-the-mark, they are offensive and betray personal prejudices that have nothing to do with this production.

  2. Bob Hicks says:

    John, I haven’t seen this production, so I can only comment on what’s written. Did the reviewer misinterpret the choices and intentions of the director and performers? Of course, that’s possible: anyone who reviews on a regular basis has done that more than once. A reviewer reports her own impressions, which may or may not align with those of the artists in the show. So, is your character as performed “middle class”? I don’t know (nor would I automatically conclude that “middle class” is a putdown). That isn’t, however, everything the reviewer said about your performance. She prefaces that sentence by saying that your Holmes “does not wear the long drawn face of a nicotine addict who also likes tight fluffy lines of cocaine to fuel his broad assumptions from few details.” Although constructed as a negative, it’s a sentence that defines, in her mind, your (and presumably Ludwig’s) approach to the character: It’s not like the stock Holmes the audience might be expecting – by extension, it’s something more distinctive. Earlier in the review, she writes: “If it wasn’t for the ease and energetic joy the cast carries as the pace increases over the performance, you might almost think you were at a hockey match … By the end of the play the timing is rapid-fire and off-the-hinges absurd.” That’s a statement, a very positive one, about the performances of the ensemble, of which you are a part. That your name is not specifically attached to it is beside the point: neither is anyone else’s – it’s a judgment of the group performance. I would suggest that the accuracy and judgment in a review of specific performances are rarely a matter of word count, and that this review does not make a contest of judging your performance versus Dennis Kelly’s. The reviewer made a comment about something in Kelly’s performance that struck her as interesting. That’s all. In short, I think you’re seeing offense where none was intended or given. Of course, my deductions could be wrong.

    • John says:

      “So, is your character as performed “middle class”? I don’t know”
      No, according to the text and the choices we’ve made, there is nothing to suggest middle-class about Holmes, beyond the fact that he lives in a flat (with his live-in assistant and housekeeper!). Now you know.
      “(nor would I automatically conclude that “middle class” is a putdown)”
      Is “middle class automatically a put-down? Absolutely not. Is it a poor distillation of the character as performed in this production? Definitely. Am I off-base to conclude that the reviewer reached that conclusion based on personal preconceptions? I don’t think so. So, what are those preconceptions?
      ” Although constructed as a negative, it’s a sentence that defines, in her mind, your (and presumably Ludwig’s) approach to the character: It’s not like the stock Holmes the audience might be expecting – by extension, it’s something more distinctive.”
      This is not a definition of anyone’s approach to the character, but rather a definition of one of the things the approach is NOT. If it’s something more distinctive, as you suggest, what is that more-distinctive characterization? Surely something beyond “stable middle-class armchair-professor hired gun”. Our Sherlock is a quirky, volatile, stiff-backed, tight-lipped, world-famous detective with superhuman powers of deduction and persuasion, none of which even loosely supports the reviewer’s conclusions.
      ” I would suggest that the accuracy and judgment in a review of specific performances are rarely a matter of word count, and that this review does not make a contest of judging your performance versus Dennis Kelly’s.”
      I made no comments regarding word count, nor did I in any way complain about not being as positively reviewed as Dennis (who is FUCKING FANTASTIC as Watson and amazing to work with and deserves far more specific praise than “His smile is smart”.), and it is a misdirection to project that onto me.
      “The reviewer made a comment about something in Kelly’s performance that struck her as interesting. That’s all.”
      I don’t think that is all, and that’s why we’re here talking about this. By itself, the comment, “His high-cheekbone smile of satisfaction looks to be the result of years of good marks at boarding school.” just seems odd-how can you tell by his smile that he went to boarding school, much less that he got good marks? But, in this context, held side-by-side with the “middle class” comments about Holmes-the famous genius he serves and worships, a character who happens in this case to be played by a minority actor, I can’t help but wonder if there is some racial prejudice hidden here.

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