By Shelley A. Sackett
Nothing could be finer than to be at theater-en-plein-air in Rockport on a clear and balmy summer evening carousing with the brilliant cast of the spectacularly entertaining Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery. Penned by Ken Ludwig, the Tony-award winning playwright of Lend Me A Tenor, this fast-paced comedic melodrama is a riff on the quintessential detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his faithful sidekick, Dr. John Watson.
This time, the dynamic duo is called upon to crack the case of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” before a family curse dooms its newest heir. Along the way, they encounter a motley crew of eccentric characters, hair pin plot twists and turns and red herrings galore. The 2-hour-15-minute (including one intermission) production flies by as five spectacularly talented actors play more than forty characters whose slapstick gestures and hyperbolic speeches they perform with impeccable pacing and precision. Couple this with stellar set, lighting, sound and prop designs, and theatergoers are in for a rollicking evening of good old-fashioned fun.
The play opens with Watson (William E. Gardiner) setting the stage by narrating what he and Holmes (Alexander Platt) know and what they need to learn about the mysterious deaths of the Baskerville heirs. Although the actors look and emote like their iconic cinematic predecessors, Basil Rathbone (Holmes) and Nigel Bruce (Watson), they each bring additional layers to the onion, remaking the characters as their own.
Gardiner’s Watson is a blend of subtle contradictions — confident, yet cautious; anxious, yet reckless; compassionate, yet unquestioningly loyal. Platt’s Holmes is delightfully quirky — blind to his worst foibles while perseverating over imagined transgressions; jumping up and down and squealing in delight one minute, while dispassionately describing a victim’s gory fate the next. Platt uses his height and leanness to bring spot on physicality and humor to his character. They are both up to the task of anchoring the play, both as its namesakes and as the two actors who play only one role.
The other three are maestros of quick change: character, costume and accent. Among them they play more than 40 characters with a style that would be at home in a Victorian melodrama. Anna Bortnick is a standout as she glides from character to character, morphing from a Scottish nurse to a severe, humorless Swedish caretaker to an older, maternal housekeeper to a scrappy Dickensian urchin boy (in whose skin Bortnick particularly shines).
Alex Jacobs is superb as he flows from Stapleton (a seemingly geeky butterfly lover who conceals a psychopath within) to Barrymore (the mournful caretaker of Baskerville Hall) to Milker (the other scrappy Dickensian urchin boy) to Lucy (the loving wife of Wilson) to Dr. Mortimer the elegant, friendly and passionate.
Julian Manjerico rounds out the trio with versatility and verbal and physical nimbleness as he hops from Sir Hugo Baskerville (a brutal, cruel Cavalier) to Wilson (the exuberant, hearty head of a messenger office), to Sir Henry Baskerville (a young Texan relation to Baskervilles, open-hearted, earnest, ready for adventure and to fall in love), to Inspector Lestrade, a cocky police inspector.
They are all aided by Miranda Kau Giurleo’s flawless costume design, Erica Tobolski’s dialect coaching and Robert Walsh’s expert action consultation. Director Jim O’Connor utilizes Janie E. Howland’s efficient, moveable set and Dewey Dellay’s original music and sound design to maximum advantage in creating a thoroughly satisfying theatrical experience.
Windhover Center for the Performing Arts is a hidden Shangri-la of a venue with a horseshoe shaped seating arrangement encircled by a grove of protective and comforting trees. The effect is intimate, organic and charming. For tickets and info, go to gloucesterstage.com/baskerville/.
‘Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery’ – Written by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Jim O’Connor. Set Design by Janie E. Howland; Lighting Design by Marcella Barbeay; Original Music/Sound Design by Dewey Dellay; Costume Design by Miranda Kau Giurleo; Props Design by Emme Shaw; Dialect Coach – Erica Tobolski; Action Consultation by Robert Walsh. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company at the Windhover Center for the Performing Arts in Rockport through July 25.