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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 50.0° F  Fog/Mist
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University Theatre's Hound of the Baskervilles is an entertaining romp with a sharp Sherlock Holmes
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VJ Wesley brings an impulsive quirkiness and persuasive intelligence to Sherlock Holmes.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

University Theatre is smart to tap into Sherlock Holmes' resurgence in popularity by presenting Hound of the Baskervilles (through July 28 at UW Vilas Hall), Tim Kelly's play based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel. The dynamic between Dr. Watson and the famed detective, whether on the big screen with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law or the small screen with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martine Freeman, or Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, is always appealing. Holmes enthusiasts will enjoy this pair's repartee in this production as well.

Holmes has been summoned to Baskerville Hall by his friend Watson, who hopes to assist Lady Agatha Mortimer in determining if the death of Sir Charles Baskerville is the result of an alleged curse that has loomed over the Baskerville family since 1742, when Hugo Baskerville and the village girl he kidnapped and imprisoned were savagely killed on the moors by a giant, doglike creature with glowing eyes. Mysterious doings on the moors have current Baskerville resident and heir, the debonair Sir Henry, and his creepy married servants, the Barrymores, spooked and tensions are high among other neighbors, including siblings Jack and Kathy Stapleton (the latter of whom is romantically involved with Henry). Adding to the tension is the ominous threat of an escaped convict roaming the moors.

Director David Furumoto had a tall order ushering this young cast through this work which, as written, is a bit stiff and stilted. I'm wondering if it would have been better to go in a campier direction so lines like "the scent of murder is in the air" aren't so hard to sell. This might make the play a more comfortable fit for the cast. Some of the cast members struggle to play older characters with accents, so there are some uneven performances, but others really shine in their roles.

Nicole Carner brought the right amount of gravitas to her role as Lady Agatha Mortimer, and Hannah Ripp-Dieter, who plays the alluring Kathy Stapleton, really seems like a movie star from the late 1930s. Watson is capably played by Jacob Toll, who is quite affable and an excellent counterpart to VJ Wesley's Sherlock Holmes. Wesley is small in stature but large in personality and gusto. He brings an impulsive quirkiness and persuasive intelligence to the part, coupled with a hustle-bustle physicality. I believed him completely when he uttered lines like "What a remarkable woman," "Stop talking rubbish," and the ubiquitous "Eureka," which could easily have sounded ridiculous.

Set designer Dana Fralick has transformed Vilas Hall's Mitchell Theatre into a stately manor house on the misty moors. Costume designer Jim Greco also deserves kudos for perfectly capturing the period, especially with his costumes for Holmes. (I loved the Inverness cape, smoking jacket and sweater.) Kathy also had just the right ensembles: glamorous without being impractical for life on the moors.

Many warnings to keep away from the moors are issued throughout the play, but if you are a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, you'll still want to check out this production.

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