Mystery and mirth on the moor: freeFall’s ‘Baskerville’
Putting a Sherlock Holmes detective story onstage has been on freeFall Theatre’s wish list for a long time, say Eric Davis and Matthew McGee, the company’s artistic director and director of community outreach, respectively.
“Whenever Robert Downey Jr., played Sherlock Holmes, I always saw Eric,” McGee confesses. “I thought they were very similar. I feel like he has a Robert Downey Jr. look. And years ago I thought ‘You know, Eric would make a good Sherlock Holmes.’”
They finally found the ideal Holmes vehicle – Baskerville, subtitled A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, is onstage at freeFall through April 23. It’s an adaptation by comic playwright Ken (Lend Me a Tenor) Ludwig.
Davis and McGee play, in turn, the great detective and his partner-in-sleuthing Dr. John Watson. It’s based on The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Holmes novels.
The allure of Sherlock Holmes, Davis believes, is timeless. “He’s a hero that uses his brain to win the day. And that is really powerful, especially to people that are drawn to literature. He appeals as a hero to readers – and, by extension, to theater-goers.”
As an actor, he never felt bound by earlier interpretations – from the likes of Downey, or Benedict Cumberbatch or even Basil Rathbone. Rather, Davis donned the deerstalker cap and found his own man. “Sherlock Holmes has been part of the zeitgeist for so long, and he’s been interpreted in so many ways by so many actors. So there’s a freedom in that. There’s so much flexibility in what Holmes and Watson can be.”
Ludwig’s version of the story is faithful, more or less, to its source material: Holmes and Watson are investigating a murder on the remote (and foggy, and terribly spooky) English moors, and the supposed presence of a giant, bloodthirsty dog that’s trotted straight out of local legend.
There are approximately 40 characters in the play. But just five actors.
That’s because Ludwig added a farcical element to his Baskerville. With the exception of Holmes and Watson, the characters – wearing all manner of costumes, sporting all manner of dialects and physical tics – come and go at breakneck speed.
The freeFall performers are Kelly Pekar, Robert Teasdale and James Putnam, and they are never still. While Davis’ Holmes and McGee’s Watson are more or less straightforward, the others seem to have exploded out of a Warner Brothers cartoon.
McGee, who’s used to playing somewhat zany characters, was at first chagrined to discover that Watson – at least in the Ludwig script – is more or less straight man to everyone else.
He is now of a different mindset. “I really enjoy watching Robert, Kelly and James,” McGee says. “I think they’re all so brilliant. So I get a front-row seat to some really fun stuff.”
McGee’s Watson is reminiscent of British actor Nigel Bruce, who played second banana to Rathbone’s Holmes in a 1940s film series. “I always loved the way he did it, unassuming, sort of bumbling. And so I really wanted to embody that a lot.”
FreeFall’s minimalist set puts the focus directly on the actors, the characterizations and the dialogue. “American and British melodramas were originally done in that style,” points out Davis. “Using simple theatrical storytelling to create all the locations, and move very swiftly, was part of what we wanted to do.”
Davis, who’s also the show’s producer and director (McGee and company refer to him as “Kenneth Branagh”) is a veteran bay area thespian whose last appearance onstage was in freeFall’s 2019 production of The Lion in Winter.
McGee, of course, is one of the area’s most prolific actors. Incredibly, Baskerville marks the first show they’ve ever performed in together.
“There are things about our dynamic, working together, that we can draw from,” Davis explains. “And we’re very close friends, and so that helps in our relationship onstage as well.”
Adds McGee: “It’s been great to work with Eric. We have so much fun doing this show. We’ve loved every minute of it.
“And it’s been so successful, we may bring them back again.”
Baskerville details and tickets are here.