Death, a family curse and a mysterious howl set the stage for William and Mary's latest play, "Baskerville," which brings legendary detective Sherlock Holmes to Phi Beta Kappa Hall this weekend.
"This is a huge show," the play's director, Christopher Owens, said. With numerous scenes and locations, it's one of the college's grandest productions.
The play itself is just two years old; Tony-winning playwright Ken Ludwig wrote this adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1902 crime novel, "Hound of the Baskervilles."
"He is one of the best playwrights in America right now," Owens said. "That's not an easy thing to pull off."
This iteration takes a different approach than some might expect, mixing melodrama and comedy.
"It's the wonderful combination of suspense and yet it's so funny," Owens said. "There are things that are looked at from a different angle than the original."
The play starts out realistic but escalates into ridiculousness. He's confident that this will give the classic story a fresh spin.
"It's not like we don't know how it's going to turn out," he said. "What fascinates us is how it happens."
Owens has been a fan of the story's protagonist since his days in middle school, praising the complexity of the character and the accessibility of his stories.
His interpretation features a "variety of moving pieces," including frequent fog, moving train wagons and the use of puppets.
"The show is also every theatrical trick in the book," Owens said. "Because of that, it wouldn't work as a movie, all this sort of fun we have."
Pulling this off takes a "tremendous team" of designers and technicians using the space in front of and backstage to its fullest.
William and Mary alumnus Martha Mountain returns to the college as the play's lighting designer. Mountain has worked on three shows with the "Baskerville" playwright and numerous others around Washington, D.C. With her lighting choices, what the audience doesn't see is as important as what they do see, as shadows play host to further mystery.
The show boasts authentic props and realistic Victorian costume design. It will have five dressers backstage, sometimes all focusing on one actor. One day of rehearsal was dedicated specifically to quick changing.
"That's the only way you can do these things," Owens said. "It's an athletic show."
The sets are minimalistic. The detective's iconic home, 221B Baker St., is represented by a simple chair; a door and a desk transform into a hotel lobby. The director is confident audiences will still grasp these locations
"Baskerville" features five actors, all of whom are students, playing more than 40 characters.
"The cast also really makes the machine of this work," Owens said.
Michael Williamson plays a single character, Dr. Watson. This marks his first main stage performance as a part of the college's theater program. He previously appeared in "Winter's Tale" at the school, but "Baskerville" is a far cry from Shakespeare's flowing soliloquies.
"This one is rapid fire," he said, echoing his director's notion that this is something the audience hasn't seen before. "There is always something to look at."
Four weeks of rehearsal and four days of technical prep meant little time for rest.
"It's great for the cast to jump off that diving board," Owens said.
Williamson recalled a particularly challenging step that requires him to rush onstage to catch a chair in the air.
"A lot of the comedy in this show comes from the actors trying to frantically get everything in place," he said, emphasizing the delicate balance of different characters along with numerous costumes and props.
Some of the actors have as many as six dialects to master, from Cockney to German. Although Williamson uses just one, that presented its own tests.
"The most challenging thing for me was getting the accent down," he said. "Learning the nuance was the hardest part."
He watched several Sherlock Holmes adaptations to prepare; he joked about the play's lack of brawling that is present in the Robert Downey Jr. films featuring the character.
With his performance, Williamson aims to find the motivation behind the melodrama and the "truth in the comedy."
Owens recalled a saying about how comedy is tragedy viewed from far away.
"It's still needing something desperately and finding a slightly larger than life way of dealing with it," he said.
Williamson believes his director has captured that with "Baskerville."
"Christopher has done a really good job of keeping the realism of the show while still finding the humor in it," he said.
Owens is confident of the play's broad appeal. College students can appreciate much of the humor, and older adults can reminisce on their past encounters with the famous detective, in older stories and movies.
"Different audiences will appreciate different things," he said.
Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-390-3029.
Want to go?
"Baskerville" shows April 20 through April 23 at William and Mary's Phi Beta Kappa Hall. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for military and $7 for students. Group rates are available. Tickets are available at the Phi Beta Kappa Hall box office, by calling 757-221-2674 or online at www.wm.edu/boxoffice.