'Baskerville' to hound Dorset audiences

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DORSET, Vt. — A female playing the male character of Sherlock Holmes? Well, say the powers that be at Dorset Theatre Festival, why not?

DTF continues its 40th anniversary season with the regional premiere of Ken Ludwig's "Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery." The play will be directed by Jen Wineman and will star Liz Wasan in the role of the beloved sleuth.

Yes, you heard that right, Ms. Wisan will play a man.

And why not? DTF executive artistic director Dina Janis said the tradition goes across genders both way, with notable female actors playing male roles such as Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, Glenda Jackson as King Lear, Meryl Streep as the Rabbi in "Angels in America."

"The playwright gave us enthusiastic permission for a female actress to play the role of Sherlock, as written, which is as a male character," Janis said. "This follows in the tradition of great actresses from the past playing roles written traditionally for men."

The plot, of course, will be familiar to fans of Arthur Conan Doyle's famed creation. Holmes and Watson must solve the mystery of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" before a family curse dooms its latest heir.

This is what make Holmes stories so much fun. Audiences will be captivated — even though the story has been told millions of times — as the intrepid investigators navigate a labyrinth of clues and deceit.

Does a wild hellhound really prowl the moors? Can Sherlock and Dr. Watson discover the truth with time enough to avoid disaster? Silly accents and disguises abound as the play's actors portray more than 40 characters in this blur of acting and laughter.

Sherlock fans weigh in

Retired Bennington College professor Sally Sugarman and her husband playwright Robert Sugarman, hosts of "Theatre Talk" on WBTN 1370 AM, and authors of the popular "More Theatre Talk" blog, both weighed in on "Baskerville" as fans of the genre.

"It's clear that given the type of play, gender switching occurs throughout, in that the men play women at some points and the other woman plays men," Sally said, referring to the entire cast of "Baskerville." "The actress who plays Holmes does not play him as a woman. These days actors playing characters of the opposite gender is not that unusual."

Men playing women was the rule in Shakespeare's day, according to Sally, and women playing men in Shakespeare has been relatively common in the last several decades.

Robert Sugarman, who also penned the 2016 novel "Antibes 1950," said that gender crossing with any Holmes performance is in line with the character's global popularity.

"There have been so many pastiches changing Holmes in many ways that it is no longer surprising when it happens," Robert said. "Holmes is now a public domain character, as all the stories' copyrights have expired."

The fun of the character, Sally quickly added, also played right into its universality. Sally is a member of the Baker Street. Breakfast Club, a southwest Vermont, which meets monthly to share friendship while taking on a different Holmes story each time.

"Most Sherlockians have a sense of humor," Sally said. "It's not a question of what is done, but how well it's done. When I was distributing tickets to members of the Baker Street Breakfast Club who had bought them to see the Dorset production, one of them asked if he should get his money back since the Holmes was being played by a woman. He was joking of course."

Sally added that if Sherlockians accepted "an Asperger's version of Holmes, they can take most anything as long as there is a basic respect for the character."

Madcap brilliance

"Baskerville" will run for 16 performances through July 29. Joining Wasan's Holmes will be Dr. Watson, played by Dave Quay. Caitlin Clouthier, Brian Owen and Raji Ahsan will tackles the dozens of other characters.

The ensemble, Janis explained, was a trademark of the playwright.

"All those roles show the madcap brilliance of Ken Ludwig," Janis said. "It's just great fun to watch as three ensemble characters switch costumes and wigs and play out 40 characters. It brings humor to the chilling tale of the Hound, and also to the art of acting."

The play is such a huge hit nationally, Janis continued, because audiences have fun with the wink and nod, while still being "scared stiff and intrigued by the mystery of the Hound."

Janis noted, though, that regional audiences were going to take warmly to Wasan's rendition.

"Once in a while, you are lucky enough to find an actress who can do anything and everything, and Liz Wisan simply blew away the competition when we were searching for our Holmes in New York City this spring," Janis said. "We are thrilled to present this twist on Sherlock and welcome to our stage a star in the making."

Reach award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias at tchalkias@aol.com, Twitter: @Telly Halkias


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