Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery

Baskerville castCertain staples of literature are so well known, a single name is all you need to conjure up images and ideas. So when the Des Moines Playhouse went looking for a non-musical show for this season, Sherlock Holmes was an easy selling point. But Baskerville (opening January 25) is a little bit different from what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have envisioned when he first wrote the classic mystery novel.

Plot Twists

The play Baskerville still has all the scenes, characters, and situations from the original Doyle book The Hound of the Baskervilles, but it doesn’t really have all the actors one would expect. While there are dozens of characters in the story, the play is performed by only five actors who exchange characters as quickly as the plot twists and turns. The mystery is still atmospheric and clever, but there are also a few laughs thrown into the mix in this version.

Baskerville MoonThe first difference anyone will notice is that the venerable detective Sherlock Holmes is played by actress Patricia Holly. Last seen on the Playhouse stage as the female lead in the musical Young Frankenstein, this part is a definite change from the ingénue role. “I was recommended to audition for the role of Actress 1,” says Holly, “and that’s the only thing I wrote down on my audition sheet. The thought of being Sherlock hadn’t even crossed my mind as a possibility, however about halfway through the initial callback [director John Viars] asked me to read for Sherlock. From that point on it was all I wanted (though I still would have happily accepted the Actress 1 position if it were offered to me).”

“There really isn’t a significant difference with Sherlock being a female; this is truly the perfect play to try a gender bend, because Sherlock’s only romantic interest is mental stimulation. Much like the Doctor in Doctor Who, though typically male, Sherlock is more of a character rather than a gender, and I am confident you’ll recognize Holmes as the ingeniously witty, boundary-pushing detective we all know and love. Besides a few pronouns, and a subtle nod to the fact we changed the gender that John threw in for fun, there’s really no difference.”

Character Turns

Baskerville FramedYou would think the hard part for the cast and crew of Baskerville would be dealing with only five performers playing 40 different characters, and keeping everyone straight. In this respect, Holly feels she got off easy, even playing the lead. “99% of my character during the play is Sherlock. Ironically enough, I believe when everything is said and done I am probably the one of the five of us onstage the least. The cast certainly has their work cut out for them, and some of my cast mates have to wear up to three costumes at once just to make their quick changes! Michael Fox (Watson) and I are lucky in the sense we only have to worry about our props.”

“It's easier than you might think. When we were starting rehearsals, obviously we could read the names of whom we were speaking to in the script, and before we were off-book John Viars did a wonderful job stressing the importance of creating a character distinctly different from the others. The actors and actress that have multiple characters did an amazing job creating, and bringing these distinctions to life. Some have a high voice, an accent, a limp, etc. that makes each character sharply different.”

Anything is Possible

Baskerville deerstalkerSo is Baskerville a mystery or a comedy? Playwright Ken Ludwig is known for his comedic works, where he has been quite prolific. But that doesn’t mean Ludwig doesn’t know how to wring emotional drama, or even a bit of fear and tension. According to Holly, this production of Baskerville is somewhere in-between. “The dialogue and jokes are clever, and you’ll want to pay close attention to catch all of the little jokes, however, the comedic moments do not carry the show alone. There are some dark moments, and some deaths, as well as a couple of mood shifts. The dialogue is what I find particularly challenging, since Sherlock likes to go on little rants in 19th century British that have nothing to do what anyone else in the room is talking about, but I do so love a challenge!”

Holly’s next challenge is down the line a bit, but it’s a project just waiting to take off: a premiere musical here in Des Moines. “I have been working with a Los Angeles based production group for about a year now about a new musical in the works called Starring Clara Bow. Long story short, we’re planning on doing a full production, and an initial taping of the musical here in Iowa at Hoyt Sherman so they can raise funding to hopefully take it to Broadway. There will be more information coming soon about auditions and specific timing, but we have an A-team onboard to direct, choreograph, etc. already, and I couldn’t be more excited about it.”

Clara Bow will come in time, but for now the game is afoot, and Holmes is on the case! You can see Patricia Holly and her four fellow performers in the comedy/mystery production of Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery at the Des Moines Playhouse. Opening January 25 and running through February 10, tickets are available online through the Playhouse website, by phone at 515-277-6261, or in person at the Playhouse ticket office at 831 42nd Street.

Photos by Steve Gibbons, courtesy of the Des Moines Playhouse. Video by Gene Massey.

Des Moines Playhouse John Viars Patricia Holly Michael Fox