Local actors star in ‘Baskerville’
- Published: October 20, 2022
If Victorian-era thrills, chills and laughs are not enough to entice you to taste some seasonal theater outside the village, then how about adding a little Yellow Springs flavor?
Villagers and actors Ellen Ballerene, Reilly Dixon and Robb Willoughby will star in Beavercreek Community Theatre’s production of “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” Fridays–Sundays, Oct. 21–23 and 28–30.
The play is an affectionate send-up of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s oeuvre in general, but specifically the 1902 novel “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” The mystery novel recounts the legend of the Baskerville family’s long-purported curse: an otherworldly hound that haunts the foggy moors near their country estate. Famed detecting duo Holmes and Watson get involved following the mysterious death of the Baskerville patriarch and the arrival of his heir.
The play follows the plot of Conan Doyle’s novel closely enough that Holmes scholars in the audience should be satisfied. However, where the novel’s tone is one of dark mystery, “Baskerville” breathes a thick haze of comedy onto the renowned work. The lion’s share of the play’s comedic content relies on the characters played by Ballerene, Dixon and Willoughby.
Between them, the three play 36 different characters — each more farcical than the last.
During a recent rehearsal, cast and crew flitted around the Beavercreek Community Theatre’s auditorium, stage and backstage area. They called out for last-minute lighting and sound cue adjustments, and brushed up the set, which features faux stone arches and candles that evoke the play’s late 19th-century setting. Holmes (David Shough) and Watson (Ryan Hester) took the stage, their understated odd-couple dynamic familiar to anyone who’s encountered one of the many variations of the iconic pair to grace the page, stage and screen over the decades.
By intentional comedic contrast, when Ballerene, Dixon and Willoughby entered as one of their many characters, they inhabited big personalities, pulled big faces — and, both literally and figuratively, wore a lot of different hats.
“Hats and wigs and eyebrows,” said Matthew Smith, who directs the production. “Every rehearsal, it seems like there are more of them.”
Smith referred to the great number of quick-changes — that is, lightning-fast costume changes — that the show includes. The three local actors spent the majority of the rehearsal dodging and weaving in and out of character and costumes.
“We play women, men, street rats, criminals,” Willoughby said in one of the rehearsal’s few calm-before-the-storm moments. “We run the gamut.”
To aid in the quick-changes, each of the three actors has a personal dresser backstage who is responsible for helping them in and out of costume. Willoughby’s dresser, Kathy Hovey, bustled backstage to get all of his costumes in order for the night.
“We’ve got to know what order they’re in, because we don’t want to be flailing — it’s like practicing the steps of a dance,” Hovey said. “I’ve got to change him 47 times!”
Ballerene said 47 might be an exaggeration — but not much of one.
“I play 14 characters, but I reprise some of them, so I’m in and out of costume a lot more than 14 times,” she said.
Willoughby added that finding appropriate costumes for so many roles was a formidable task for the production’s veteran costumer, Janet Powell. Through her long connections with theater groups all over the Miami Valley, including the Human Race Theatre Company and the Dayton Playhouse, Powell put together a wardrobe that evokes scullery maids, Castilian hoteliers, constables, opera singers and 18th-century ruffians, among others.
“She’s done an extraordinary job,” Willoughby said. “In the Dayton area, she’s the lady you want [for costuming].”
Outside of changing their costumes, the actors must also stretch their theatrical muscles to fully embody each of the characters they play. The costumes help, Ballerene said, but their work involves incorporating different accents, vocal ranges and body language every time they leave the stage as one person and come back as another.
“It’s a lot of fun — as long as you remember who you are!” she said.
The three actors laughed at this, remembering one rehearsal in which Dixon came on stage as the wrong character. They also discussed one quick-change that’s so quick the cast and crew had to invent a creative way to get Dixon on-stage in a new costume in a matter of seconds. That method won’t be spoiled here, as it’s certainly played for laughs, and deserves to be experienced in person.
“We’ll be tweaking and fine-tuning up until opening night, I’m sure — we’re using every trick in the book,” Director Smith said.
He added that the production also uses a body double in some scenes. Stage Manager Steve Mongelli provides this service, when he’s not accounting for set pieces and props, running the fog machine — essential for the murky streets of London and the misty moors — and generally making sure cast and crew have everything they need.
“We’ve got it set up so that you won’t ever really see my face,” Mongelli said. “That dynamic has been a little stressful, but it’s also been really interesting.”
Ballerene, Dixon and Willoughby said that, while their various roles and attendant costume changes are challenging, they’re also a lot of fun to undertake. And should things go awry during a performance, Willoughby said, the preposterous nature of the play itself provides something of a comedic cover for the actors.
“It’s sort of like ‘the play that goes wrong’ in the sense that, if something goes wrong, we’ll just go with it,” he said.
“Things kind of unravel as the play goes on,” Dixon added. “As the drama heightens, the wall between the performers and the audience crumbles more and more — by the end, everybody will hopefully be in on the joke.”
While these elements have been the most challenging for the Yellow Springs contingent of the cast, Director Smith said his biggest obstacle has been publicizing the show — both to potential cast during auditions, and now to potential audiences.
“I don’t think people know the show — it’s not a big musical, it’s not a Neil Simon comedy,” he said.
Though playwright Ken Ludwig, who penned the script, has well-known work in the oft-produced “Lend Me a Tenor,” “Baskerville,” Smith said, is “kind of abstract.” Nevertheless, he hopes folks will take a chance on the show, whose spooky sound design, set and evocation of the demon hound running loose across the English countryside, he said, are perfect for the season.
“Come out and give us a shot — I think you’re going to have a lot of fun,” Smith said. “It’s certainly been fun to work on.”
“Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” will be performed Fridays and Saturdays, Oct. 21, 22, 28 and 29, at 8 p.m.; and Sundays, Oct 23 and 30, at 3 p.m. For ticket information, go to bit.ly/3SbJxHc.