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Theatre Charlotte’s ‘Baskerville’ Gives Sherlock a Comedic Spin

Watson points a pistol aimed offscreen while Holmes holds a magnifying close to his chest and a lantern extended in Baskerville
Allen Andrews as Holmes (right) and Robert S. Brafford as Dr. John Watson in Theatre Charlotte’s ‘Baskerville.’ (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

In a year when ginormous pink Barbie dolls and balloons are making inroads on normally ghoulish local lawns, there are valid reasons to fear for the soul of Halloween — though the marketability of its candy and saturnalia seems to be as healthy as ever.

Civilization really is over if the lines of cars I’m seeing along I-77, stretched all the way back to the I-485 Interchange, are really inching toward this year’s Scarowinds just to see skeletal makeovers of Barbie and Ken.

Over at the Old Barn on Queens Road, one of the ripest places for haunting in the whole Metrolina region, Theatre Charlotte is presenting Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville, a comedic version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous and scarifying Sherlock Holmes novel.

Make no mistake, Ludwig is the man for the job, odious as it might be. Best regarded for Lend Me a Tenor (1986), Moon Over Buffalo (1995), Shakespeare in Hollywood (2003), and his resourceful Gershwin musical, Crazy for You (1992), Ludwig is at his best dealing with showbiz.

The playwright comes at us with a great love of backstage intrigue, knows the tricks of the trade, and is adept at both comedy and farce. He racked up a wide range of adaptation experience before tackling the pinnacle of Sherlock: Murder on the Orient Express, The Game’s Afoot (Holmes for the Holidays), Moriarty, Sherwood, Treasure Island, and The Three Musketeers.

Rather than following his own voluminous playbook in 2015, Ludwig seemed to be enthralled with The 39 Steps, Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s screen classic. In that megahit, four players took on more than 100 characters, two of them tethered to the superspy protagonist and his three romantic interests, while two others quick-changed and speed-dialed all the rest.

Cast members of Baskerville stands, sit and lie onstage
The cast of ‘Baskerville’ onstage. (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

Here there are two main actors once again, the suave Allen Andrews as Holmes and Robert S. Brafford as a less-stuffy-than-usual Dr. John Watson, the great detective’s sidekick and Boswell. We encounter a grand total of merely 69 characters and cover less geography, shuttling between London and the sparsely populated Dartmoor.

That is where Baskerville Hall is surrounded by fogs, bogs, heaths, mire, and moors, terrorized by a mythical canine for more than two centuries. Or is the massive, fearsome beast real? Costume designer Sophie Carlick and a couple of ninja-clad stagehands, Rachel Griffin and Henry Schaffer, have the answer.

So will Holmes, of course, in due time. Meanwhile director Tom Hollis, after 40 years of haunting various Charlotte area stages, chiefly at CPCC, finally makes his Theatre Charlotte debut, deploying Caryn Crye, Christian Casper, and Roman Lawrence in a fairly dizzying array of roles, shtick, scenery shifting, and mangled accents.

To the extent that you don’t revere or care about the slowly building horror of The Hound of the Baskervilles – or haven’t experienced the madcap 39 Steps – this is fun.

Woe betide if you don’t fulfill these conditions, or if you like your comical foreign accents less mangled and more intelligible.

For decades, the CPCC Summer Theatre had one farcical comedy or mystery thriller wedged into its annual lineup of three musicals, so Hollis is very much at home with Dartmoor and Ludwig. At the center of the Baskerville whirlwind, you can expect Andrews and Brafford to deliver the time-honored mix of brilliance and judicious admiration.

Sherlock sits while Watson stands next to him in Baskerville
Allen Andrews as Holmes (right) and Robert S. Brafford as Dr. John Watson. (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

Holmes’s ratiocination is more squinting than pacing, yet there is a sprinkling of neurosis in Andrews’ portrayal. Deployed more than usual as the supersleuth’s scout, Brafford is a willing if not eager Watson, an action hero who can infuse some warmth into the doctor’s narrative chores.

Amid the whirlwind encircling the dynamic duo, Casper is the stabilizing force and the most consistently successful comedian. We see him first as Dr. James Mortimer, spinning the Baskerville yarn and importuning Sherlock to hasten and investigate the most recent murder of Sir Charles Baskerville on the moors.

Later he’s probably the Baskerville butler under a fabulous black wig and the brother of Laura Stapleton, with whom Sir Henry Baskerville, the Texas heir to the Baskerville estate and fortune, instantly falls in love.

Cast members of ‘Baskerville’ onstage at the Barn. (Photo by Kyle J Britt) 

The blissful rapport between Crye and Lawrence as the lovebirds yields their best work, for Ludwig has wisely transplanted Henry from Canada to Texas before the action begins. That gives Lawrence the best of his accents to butcher while delicate idealized ingenues are definitely in Crye’s wheelhouse.

Casper’s most memorable shtick probably occurs when he stoically stands in a picture frame as the portrait of Sir Hugo Baskerville, dutifully following the prompts of Holmes’s keen imagination.

As the mystery unfolds, there are flurries of quick costume changes, mustaches that fail to stick, actors playing multiple characters in the same scene, and some playful, purposeful screwups.

Our main suspect for the frequent infusions of fog and smoke is Theatre Charlotte artistic director Chris Timmons, listed here as lighting designer, but perhaps the company’s tech director, Chris Morgan, was too modest to be credited. Either way, these eerie puffs of delight are desperately needed amid a dearth of actual scenery.

Projections on the upstage wall would have provided better transport between Baker Street and Baskerville Hall — but not as much sloppy confusion. Hollis isn’t the first director to enlist a dialect coach for Baskerville, but a broader, slower Peter Sellers approach to foreign accents would have yielded more comedy gold.

Some of Lawrence’s best moments are as the crook-backed Inspector Lestrade, but he would have been an even more hilarious nitwit if we had more clues to what he was saying.

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