A strong wind blew inside the rehearsal space at Long Wharf Theatre, making Dr. Watson and Sir Henry lean into it.
“And hat,” said director Brendon Fox. A member of the crew tossed a hat through the air in front of the characters, who were looking for and found a certain Dr. Mortimer, who might have some information they needed.
“We’re lookin’ for a woman with the initials ‘L.L.’!” Sir Henry shouted into the wind. “What?” Dr. Mortimer shouted back. “We’re looking for a woman!” Watson shouted. “So am I! I’m tired of being single!” Dr. Mortimer shouted.
From a table at the side of the room, the stage manager laughed. Fox looked pleased. Things were coming together for Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, a lighthearted take on the Sherlock Holmes mystery The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In it, a hellhound (it seems) is killing the male heirs to a family fortune in the moor country. Holmes is there to find out who’s doing it. But in Baskerville, he finds that the trail of jokes is thicker than the trail of blood.
The play opens Feb. 28 at Long Wharf Theatre and runs through March 25.
At the center of Baskerville is a clever conceit. Two actors, Alex Moggridge and Daniel Pearce, play Holmes and his assistant Dr. Watson, respectively. The remaining 36 characters are split among three actors — in this production, Brian Owen, Christopher Livingston, and Kelly Hutchinson. This economy of actors translates to the production itself. As the play’s action flits from London to the moors, from footpaths to offices, the actors are involved in moving pieces around the stage — door frames, stand-up shrubbery — to set just enough of the scene to act and move on, and create a little comedy in the process.
So in the scene above, Pearse, as Watson, found himself interacting with Livingston as Sir Henry Baskerville and Owen as Dr. Mortimer. The actors played with the specific timing of the script, trying out different inflections to balance the humor and the plot.
“There’s a lot of information here,” Fox reminded them. “We can play. But I want to throw a flag on the field.” The audience needed to be able to hear what they had to say. The actors nodded and tried again.
And no sooner was the conversation with the doctor finished, but Livingston then figured out how, in mock secrecy, to haul away the door frame they’d just walked through, to great comedic effect. (“Let’s try that and see how bad it is,” Fox said, chuckling.) As Livingston and Pearse — now back outside — traded a few lines about where their investigation might take them next, Owen busily set up scenery behind them, then moved fast to take his position — transformed in an instant by voice and body language into a country farmer.
“You’ve got to make a lot of decisions on how you’re going to shape each character to be really sharply defined so they don’t bleed into each other” — especially as some characters change four seconds later, said Owen in an interview later.
Some of those decisions involve the costumes. Thankfully, Long Wharf has a “really savvy costume designer and a really hard-working costume shop,” Owen said. “We have some very tricky changes that happen in front of the audience. In one case, in one of the first scenes, an actor transforms from a scullery maid into a 17th century cavalier — that dress transforms just by turning inside out … another costume folds down and reveals a whole new costume.”
But other changes require Owen to do the best character work he can. “For me, it’s all about juxtaposition. The one I’m in right now — it has to be vastly different from the one before it, so the changes pop,” he said.
He considers himself fortunate that Baskerville takes place in the United Kingdom, where “you immediately have a variety of accents and dialects to draw upon that connote class” — accents that, unlike in the U.S., aren’t geographically isolated from each other, either. He’s also able to play with body language, and even the way the different characters carry themselves.
This, however, requires more than creating caricatures. One character Owen plays is a hunchbacked butler. To play him, Owen, thought about how such a man “might be isolated a bit” socially, which would affect the way he talks to strangers. And then there was “just the physiology” to consider. What does having a hunchback do to a person’s voice?
To truly differentiate one character from the next, Owen continued, “the decisions can’t be arbitrary.” And on the positive side, “if I’m able to find with the other actors and the director what are the points of view” of each individual character, “I can go to some extreme places that are still grounded in ideology and psychology.”
This is the fourth time Owen has been involved in a production of Baskerville, and he said that the experience of it, as an actor, is still “like being on the edge of a hurricane.”
“I’ve got a section of the show where I leave stage as a man decked in black with a large black beard, and I have about 15 seconds to turn into an elderly woman, and then 4 seconds to be a 14-year-old street urchin, and then 8 seconds to be a Castillian desk clerk,” he added. The changes happen over the course of three scenes, with Owen spending maybe about two minutes apiece as each character. “When I’m in the thick of it, each character to me has a different, distinct feel of their energy,” he said. He takes a quick moment to jump from one to the next. “Can I shake this off, and drink up whatever the energy the next character is? Can I purge myself of that and then take a shot of 14-year-old street urchin? And then deeply closeted butterfly catcher?”
Each character “has got to be able to tell you their identity in the first line,” Owen added. “This is the character, this is the world. Now listen to what they’re actually saying.”
Because in the end all of these transformations are in the service of telling the story, and “there’s a ton of story,” Owen said. “It is a full Sherlock Holmes mystery, with unanswered questions, with wrong paths they go down, with red herrings. With trying to tell something swiftly, the temptation would be to pare it away. But Ken Ludwig has retained the full story. How can you do that in two hours and not bore the audience with too much exposition?”
The answer lies both in rapid acting twists and turns, rapid set changes, letting the audience see some —though not all — of the strings of how the play is put together. “Taking the door frame with you always will get a laugh,” Owen said of Livingston’s bit of scenic choreography. “That’s comedic, but it’s also a brazen act of imagination.” And it brings the audience along from one scene to the next faster than a full scene change might.
In a way, Owen said, it’s that the audience is seeing “the right strings that tell the story…. you can see how it’s happening, but it’s still magic. It’s a real celebration of what the theater does.”
Back at rehearsal, the actors had more logistics to figure out. Livingston pointed out that some of them needed to have guns in their hands, but then still needed hands free to move scenery. When could the guns be brought onstage and off? What was the best way to put together the details of the scene? They tried it again. They tried it another way. Owen mopped his brow.
“Whew! It’s hot in this play — and we haven’t even started,” Fox said.