By PAM HARBAUGH
Peg Girard, director extraordinaire at Melbourne Civic Theatre, is no shrinking violet. Just because Orlando Shakes was opening its own Sherlock-y play, “The Hounds of the Baskerville’s” (on the same day, mind you,) as MCT’s “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery.””Ms. Girard was far from unsettled.
But she would allow that “their’s is funny, too.”
“It’s totally different,” she said. “It’s not the same show. They have three actors. Ours is Ken Ludwig’s take.”
Which means five actors playing many roles.
And, certainly, with the veteran cast she has wrought, it also suggests everything from droll attitude to hilarious hijinx. On stage are Adrian Cahill as Sherlock, Mark Blackledge as Dr. Watson and a chorus, as it were — Christina LaFortune, Glenn Krasny and David Hill — playing dozens of characters.
“It’s a relatively new play to all of us,” said director Peg Girard. “It’s never been done in Brevard County and I’ve never seen it (anywhere).”
Indeed. The play debuted in 2015 at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J. Inspired by writings of one of his favorite authors – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Ludwig wanted to take the “quixotic, cerebral, dashing” heart of Sherlock Holmes and set on stage the author’s most famous stories – The Hound of the Baskervilles.
As he explained in a McCarter Theatre Center video interview, he knew that to handle a story with this big sweep, he’d have to use a bit of theater magic – tell the whole shebang with a cast of five.
“The play is meant to be as much about the theater as it is about Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Watson,” he said.
The story, set in 1898, concerns the Baskerville family living in the foggy English moors – a place that sees many dark and stormy nights. Sr. Charles Baskerville is killed. His friend, Dr. Mortimer approaches Sherlock Holmes to solve a mystery: Who is killing all the male Baskerville heirs? Holmes and Watson head to Baskerville Hall to ferret out the answer.
“It’s not like any other version of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles,’ that’s for sure,” LaFortune said. “It is true to Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, so it’s still a Sherlock Holmes murder mystery, but it gets pretty funny along the way. And the silliness is heightened because we have five actors playing all the roles in the story. That’s part of the fun.”
“We’re making it funny and silly and crazy,” Blackledge said. “But (the trio) are doing the heavy lifting, pulling all the humor. Watson and Holmes have a few funny lines, but (the trio) go crazy with the characters and the quick changes. They go from Texan to English squire in a few seconds. When Christina (LaFortune) comes on stage at the beginning, she starts with three layers of clothes…People seem to love it.”
While this may be a first time out with the play for Girard and MCT, this is not the first time she has directed a Ludwig farce. MCT has produced many successful Ludwig shows, including “Leading Ladies,” “Moon Over Buffalo,” “Fox on the Fairway” and most recently “The Games Afoot.”
The playwright’s enormous list of plays also include “Lend Me a Tenor” and the popular musical “Crazy for You.” While some people may say his English counterpart would be Ray Cooney (“Run for Your Wife” and “Out of Order,” to name two), Ludwig is far more prolific.
He’s written two dozen plays as well as the book “How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare.”
A learned man with a wide wealth of literary knowledge, Ludwig grew up in Pennsylvania where he went to every play he could get to. Once a year, his parents would take him to a show in New York City. In his blog, he talks about being influenced by a wide range of playwrights – from Neil Simon and Terence Rattigan to Ben Travers and George Feydeau. Throw in George Bernard Shaw and Williams Shakespeare and you get a smidgen of a glimpse into his deep background.
The playwright’s process involves sitting on an idea for months at a time, then taking notes which turn into an overall concept. Then, he’ll write up scenes on legal pads that are narrow-lined so he can “get a lot on each page and therefore feel the sweep of the scene better.” (Source, KenLudwig.com)
Sitting at a computer is the final part of the process.
“I’m a firm believer that if you follow what you love you’ll find a way of making a happy life and (as my father always counseled me) you must wake up every day looking forward to the day’s work,” Ludwig wrote. “If you don’t, you’re in the wrong profession.”
Ludwig’s fascination with Sherlock Holmes is sparked by the fictional detective’s brooding nature and love of Beethoven. He sees Holmes and Watson as the embodiment of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. His explanation in an interview with Lisa Lombardi at Arena Stage, is as literary as his plays are witty.
“They are Ariel and Caliban,” he said in the interview. “They are fire and earth. These roots plant them firmly in our shared mythology, and we respond to them as we respond to all mythological characters, not just through the brain but also viscerally and through our hearts.”
Girard said that Ludwig shows his love for the characters and their author by having fun with the show.
To incorporate all the locations in the story, Girard turned to her scenic designer Alan Selby to create an impressionistic set that will take audiences from London, to the moors, walking in the rain, in a buggy and more.
Projections are used to suggest the train station, Baskerville Hall and more, Girard said.
“There are silly accents and disguises,” she said. “Everything happens so fast, it has to be a little campy. David Hill plays Sir Charles, then the maid Daisy and turns into Sir Hugo in front of you in the matter of eight or nine lines. In the opera sing, Krasny and Christina become two opera singers. We go to another scene where they play the Barrymores. Sometimes they have one line before changing again.
“This show is a shot of bourbon away from madness.”
SIDE O’ GRITS: BASKERVILLE: A SHERLOCK HOLMES MYSTERY runs through Nov. 12 at Melbourne Civic Theatre, 817 E. Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. Tickets are $29 and $31 (handling charges may apply) and are quickly selling out. Call 321-723-6935, visit MyMCT.org or click on their ad.
This is an edited version of a story running the Melbourne Beachsider.