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The howls (as in laughter) come fast in 'Baskerville'

What nonsense.

What total, delightful, ridiculous nonsense!

"Ken Ludwig's Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery," a romp of a rewrite of one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous detective stories, is bouncing around Shea's 710 Theatre this weekend and next in a production designed to knock off any lingering gloom from the overly long winter season.

"Baskerville" does for Sherlock Holmes what "The 39 Steps" parody play did for Hitchcock, carving off the meat of the mystery and putting it on a well-greased banana peel. (In fact, look for a few tips of the homage hat from Ludwig to "The 39 Steps" in this show.)

Five actors star as a cast of thousands in the MusicalFare production, each wearing what seems like dozens of hats. Todd Benzin may have it easiest, sticking pretty much to the signature deerstalker cap as he collects his clues. Chris J. Handley plays his counterpoint, a cute and clueless Dr. Watson. Patrick Cameron, Maria Droz and Marc Sacco round out the cast as, well, everybody else in England.

At least, everybody else in the lonely landscape of the British moors, where legend says a fiendish gigantic hound roams in search of the blood of the Baskervilles. As in Conan Doyle's original tale, the hound is more heard than seen, but thanks to the excellent sound work by Chris Cavanagh, we get the appropriate shivers.

Kari Drozd and Susan Drozd must have had fun coming up with the clever costumes and wigs that the players slip into and out of with sometimes reckless speed -  and not always offstage. A man's corpse becomes a charwoman with a quick roll into a wig and apron, but some of the other switcheroos are just a hoot and, as one sage character explains by answering a different question, "You have no idea!"

Along with switching clothes there is a lot of switching accents, so we have the English, of course, joined by a Texan, a Peruvian, some nearly unintelligible Scots, and the couple who are service at the Baskerville estate, the Barrymores. These two have far more in common with Frau Blucher and Igor than with John and Ethel, a resemblance that comes up in one of Ludwig's many off-hand jokes.

The dialogue is delivered with winks, nods and a straight face when necessary, and co-directors Randall Kramer and Doug Weyand have coached the actors into a near-flawless rendition of the show's physical comedy, more nuanced than slapstick but simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating to watch. Especially fun is a walk through a windstorm around Lynne Koscieiniak's versatile set and the aisles that manages to leave us all breathless despite there being no actual wind.

Since it is a comedy, the plot should contain a love story, which it does a few times over, thanks to the villain's reluctant co-conspirator's unstoppable affection for her hero and to Watson's indiscriminate search for romance.

Theater can be enlightening, frightening, inspiring or dazzling. And if you're lucky, as with "Baskerville," is can also be absolutely meaningless fun.


Theater review

"Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery"

★ ★ ★ ★ (out of 4)

Parody adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes mystery, filtered through Mel Brooks, "The 39 Steps" and possibly some Monty Python for good measure. Presented by MusicalFare at Shea's 710 Theatre, 710 Main St. Performances are 8 p.m. May 11, 12, 18 and 19 and 2 p.m. May 13. For tickets, or 847-0850.


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