Move Over, Rathbone & Bruce –
Davis & McGee are on the Case
Through April 23
NEA/Pinellas Recovers Grant Update
More than 84 actors have portrayed Sherlock Holmes on stage, screen and radio since 1908 – from current day Robert Downey Jr, Benedict Cumberbatch and Will Ferrell (no lie), back to Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Larry Hagman, Roger Moore and of course Basil Rathbone (just love saying that name). Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were my father’s favorite sleuthing duo – and by genetic osmosis, mine as well. . . until now.
Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville opened this past week at freeFall Theatre in St. Pete to sold out crowds and great acclaim. It’s a bandwagon you’ll have no difficulty jumping on. A murder mystery set on the 1890s Devonshire Moors and environs, with a mythic murderous hound and great performances, Baskerville is altogether a wonderfully entertaining theater experience.
Two of the Baskervilles have been murdered. The myth is that a huge and vicious hound lurking on the English Moors is responsible – just as it was for a Baskerville ancestor. Could history be repeating itself? The Baskerville Mansion and estate are at stake. Are hounds into all that material stuff? The crime-solving game is afoot, and Holmes and Watson have about 40 potential suspects to investigate. Can they do it in two hours? Call me an optimist.
Playwright, Ken Ludwig loves adapting classics like The Three Musketeers, Murder on the Orient Express, and of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. His work is staged over a thousand times a year – and locally at Asolo Rep in Sarasota (Murder on the Orient Express) and here at freeFall.
His humor adds depth and comic relief to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic characters. It adds nuance, humanity and hilarity. After a few Ludwig plays, you begin to recognize the style and you’re all in.
Eric Davis, freeFall’s Artistic Director, returns to the stage after an almost four year hiatus – his last appearance being in James Goldman’s classic, The Lion in Winter. Davis’s Holmes has all the hyberbolic brilliance you’ve come to expect, not just from Doyle’s perspective, but from a Ludwig character. He’s unintentionally funny – and has flashes of insecurity and self-recrimination at any mistake, no matter how small.
It makes you wonder what kind of childhood Holmes must have had. Did Father demand too much? A new mystery to be solved – another time. Bottom line – Davis is loud, overly dramatic (by design and in the best possible way), and he delivers – as always. Also, he looks great in a deerstalker cap. Oh, and he directed. Not too shabby.
Matthew McGee as Dr. Watson – could you think of anyone else you’d want to play this role? No. Yet McGee’s Watson is understated, mostly doing case recon for Holmes, allowing the ensemble to shine and deliver a good portion of the laughs. McGee narrates while performing and can still crack you up with just a look or motion, and with subtlety here. He simply never disappoints.
The natural tempo and timing between Davis and McGee is born out of decades of working together, and the audience is the beneficiary.
What can I possibly say about the supporting ensemble of Kelly Pekar, James Putnam and Robert Teasdale? The rapid-fire ease with which they changed characters – a LOT of characters – was almost as impressive as their precise comic timing and the world (literally), of accents they mastered. Meryl Streep would be impressed.
Pekar, a freeFall alum, morphs from housemaid to lovely young ingenue, to a cockney boy, to an old German crone – Inga, my personal favorite, made me laugh out loud. Imagine the wedding priest from Princess Bride meets the Bride of Frankenstein meets Frau Blücher. As comic moments go – perfection.
Putnam and Teasdale are equal to the task of playing dozens of characters. Putnam, making his freefall debut, inhabits good and evil characters seamlessly and melds right into the freeFall ethos. Teasdale, returning to freeFall post-Shrek National Tour, plays the surviving Baskerville, from Texas, (a Ludwig thing), along with many other hilarious characters. He is such a pro, as they all are – so much talent on one stage.
The hardest thing to do is to make it look so easy. Mission accomplished.
Costume design by family-run DK Costumes & Creations was clever and strategically created to accommodate the many incarnations of characters created by Pekar, Putnam, and Teasdale. Hats. Hats. Hats… off.
Hansen Scenic made chairs, two benches, and two doorway facades at either end of the stage, work as Holmes’s flat, Baskerville Manor, the Moors, the opera and even a stagecoach. This is a true example of less is more.
Sound design for Baskerville is clearly a critical element in bringing the Moors alive, and Tampa Bay native Nathan Doyle’s audio fills the theater with dread and foreboding. Local lighting guru Jo Averill-Snell creates lighting for every environment, helping with the illusion offered by the chairs and benches. Impressive, all of it.
The multi-talented Sara Del Beato (most recently seen playing Phyllis Shatz in The Night Before), ably runs the whole production with aplomb. Definitely no small feat here.
Baskerville is at freeFall through April 23 with tickets selling out quickly. You can find ticket information here, or become a monthly freeFall subscriber.
Photos by Thee Photo Ninja
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freeFall Theatre is a recipient of the Pinellas Recovers Grant,
provided by Creative Pinellas through a grant from the
National Endowment of the Arts American Rescue Plan.