Left to right: Brian Mackey, Michael Cusimano and John Wells III in "Ken Ludwig's Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery." Photo courtesy of Lamb's Players Theatre
Hats off to Angela Chatelain Avila, Michael Cusimano and especially Omri Schein, the three quick-costume-change actors in Lamb’s Players Theatre’s production of “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery.” Their morphing from character to character with barely a half-minute offstage is the plum of this farcical take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Schein, one of the top character actors on San Diego stages, can win a hearty laugh with a mere facial expression or grunt, and this production is funniest whenever he’s onstage. Happily, that’s most of the time.
I first saw this show in 2015 when the Old Globe produced it in its theater-in-the-round Sheryl and Harvey White space. Making ingenious use of the intimate confines, that “Baskerville” had props dropping from anywhere and everywhere, and cast members coming and going constantly. In Lamb’s much larger setting, the kinetic craziness of that Globe staging is absent, making this “Baskerville” directed by Robert Smyth more conventional comedy. The quick changes are just as head-spinning, but the pace of the play is more sluggish. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” novel is complex and probably too long; Ludwig’s fun with it comes off as more complex than it should be, and it’s certainly too long, even at 90 minutes.
Here, Brian Mackey occupies the starring role as the lanky, supremely self-confident and eminently arrogant Holmes. John Wells III is the trusted companion and chronicler of Holmes’ feats, Dr. John Watson. While both of them are very good as these well-known characters, theirs are the straight-men parts, mostly reacting to the antics of the other 30-something characters played by Cusimano, Avila and Schein.
If there’s a benefit to “Baskerville” being on a larger stage it’s the ability to utilize projections (designed by Christian Turner) to create the backdrop for 221 B Baker St. or Baskerville Hall or the lonely and deadly moor of the story. Props are few and really not needed anyway.
“The Hound of the Baskervilles” like all of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures is, but for the smug detective’s ironical quips, without any humor at all. That makes this tale ideal for parody, not unlike the way Mel Brooks masterfully turned Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” into a comedy-film classic.
The story of a mysterious and lethal hound that stalks the environs of Baskerville Hall in Devonshire, England, is told pretty faithfully in Ludwig’s script, with the comedy sprinkled over it practically from start to finish. It nonetheless can be too expository and explanatory as the truth of the tale is bit by bit revealed. This makes the show highly reliant on the performances of the quick-changing character actors, even more than on its Holmes and Watson.
Cusimano spends most of his time as the loud but likable Texan Henry Baskerville though does duty throughout in a number of other roles, including Doyle’s recurring Inspector Lestrade.
Avila tackles everything from the lovely Beryl Stapleton, Henry’s love interest, to the Cockney Baker Street Irregular boy Cartwright. Her finest moments, though, are as Mrs. Barrymore, the female half of the pair that tends to Baskerville Hall. She brings to mind a hybrid between Elsa Lanchester in “The Bride of Frankenstein” (that hair!) and Cloris Leachman’s brilliant Frau Blucher in Brooks’ “Frankenstein” spoof.
It’s hard to know where to start with the tireless Schein. His meatiest part is that of the butterfly-seeking villain Stapleton, but he’s everywhere in this show: as the kinda creepy Dr. Mortimer who brings the Baskerville legend to Holmes’ attention; as the kinda creepier manservant Barrymore; to the frightening convict Selden, trying to escape capture out on the moor; to any number of clerks and cameos, of either gender. Schein just shines.
Sight gags abound, the most memorable one being Watson, Baskerville and Mortimer fighting a fierce wind to get from one place to another. No wind machine is used; it’s all improvisation and nicely done.
Holmes purists will find all the joking around at everyone’s expense sacrilege, but this play is not for them. It’s for those who appreciate silliness and a little slapstick and just enough atmosphere to dupe them into thinking they’re in southern England for an hour and a half.
“Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” runs through Nov. 20 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado. A return engagement will be Jan. 3-8.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.