The new version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” that opens at the Forum Theatre this week does for Sherlock Holmes’ gothic mystery what “Young Frankenstein” did for the classic monster movie.
So says Ray Wills, one of three actors who, through quick changes of costumes and accents, will tackle all dozen or so roles themselves to tell the story of a villain who unleashes a giant hound from hell to kill at his pleasure.
Adapted by Steven Canny and John Nicholson from the 1901 novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for the British Peepolykus (pronounced: People Like Us) Theatre troupe, this 2007 import is making its Kansas debut.
“It remains surprisingly faithful to all the plot points, but it’s a lot of wonderfully silly, spoofy fun. It’s absolute craziness,” said Wills, who plays eccentric sleuth Sherlock as well as himself – or, rather, an egotistical version of himself as a Broadway veteran – plus four other characters, including two women.
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“It’s a play within a play within a show. The conceit is that we are playing divas playing these characters putting on this show,” said Wills, who admits he is reveling in going overboard to fabricate “The Esteemed Broadway Star Ray Wills.” Wills, who is on sabbatical to teach acting at Newman University, was on Broadway with “The Producers” for five years, understudying and going on for Tony-winning star Nathan Lane numerous times.
Ted Dvorak, a noted local operatic tenor who has sung internationally, plays “The Esteemed Opera Tenor Ted Dvorak” playing Sir Henry Baskerville and a couple of others, including two “local yokels” and creepy Dr. Mortimer, who spooks everybody by recounting the tale of the hound from hell to get the play rolling.
“I’m a tenor so I’m having fun blowing out the reputation of the opera tenor’s ego,” says Dvorak, a Wichita State University graduate in music and a soloist at Plymouth Congregational Church who has been invited to Germany twice to sing in operatic productions.
“I play Sir Henry most of the time, but he’s a standard romantic hero. I’m having more fun with Dr. Mortimer, who is eccentric, eerie and just a little off. He’s more of a challenge,” said Dvorak, recently seen in the Forum’s “One Man, Two Guvnors” and “The Full Monty.”
“I’m definitely more experienced as a singer than an actor, so this gives me a chance to even things out in my career,” Dvorak said.
Rounding out the cast is Caleb Coffman as Sherlock’s long-suffering sidekick, Dr. Watson, and, of course, himself.
“Ray gets to play up being a Broadway star and Ted has international opera experience. I’m playing myself as just a dude because I don’t have any other professional credits yet,” said Coffman, a Coffeyville native who graduated from WSU in theater last May and is living and working in Kansas City while preparing for graduate studies. At WSU, he appeared in the musical “She Loves Me” and the absurdist tragicomedy “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”
“I’m the one who is trying to be the balance between the clashing egos. I’m the one trying to keep things calm and keep things moving because I don’t have the standing to do anything else,” Coffman said.
Of his main character, Watson, Coffman said he’s “a bit of a bumbler” who ends up being the comic foil because of his “misunderstandings.”
Karen Robu, a longtime favorite Wichita Music Theatre performer best remembered as Mama Rose in “Gypsy” and the Wicked Witch in “Wizard of Oz,” is making her directorial debut at the Forum with this show. She previously directed at Music Theatre for Young People and Crown Uptown Theatre.
“It’s very clever writing,” Robu said of what drew her to the play. “It’s not been done here before so there are no preconceived notions. We have the freedom to have fun while being creative.”
Because of her background, Robu is considered an actor’s director.
“As a performer, I like to do what comes naturally. When I’ve had problems with dialogue or movement, it’s because the line was written poorly or the motivation wasn’t there. I want this show to be a collaboration of all four of us, not just me telling the actors what to do,” Robu said. “I want us to have a good time while doing the work.”
Kathryn Page Hauptman, producing artistic director for The Forum, described “Hound” as a “parody that pays homage” to Sherlock Holmes in a way that fans of the legendary sleuth will appreciate rather than become annoyed by.
“The plot line is intact but the tone is smartly comic. It’s just the right juxtaposition of gothic horror and comedy,” Hauptman said. “It’s a new and entertaining way to approach a classic.”