By Emilia LaPenta, Literary Manager, McCarter Theatre Center
Director Amanda Dehnert helms the co-production of Ken Ludwig's world-premiere play, Baskerville, for Arena Stage and McCarter Theatre Center. Regional credits include All's Well That Ends Well, Julius Caesar and Into the Woods for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Richard III for the Public Theatre mobile Shakespeare unit and Cabaret for the Stratford Festival. Amanda has also served as both associate and interim artistic director at the Trinity Repertory Company. Recently, Amanda gave us some insight into her directing style and approach to bringing Sherlock Holmes to the stage.
What first drew you to working on Baskerville?
I think fundamentally, in the theater, we all love a really great story. And Baskerville is a really great story. It’s an adventure/mystery/thriller that is fun to be a part of, and to take an audience through. I also love that it is told in a funny and theatrical way, with a small group of people playing multiple parts. All of those things put together really made it feel like a gem of a project to me.
Did you have a relationship with the character of Sherlock Holmes before this project?
I read the books when I was young, around the same time I was reading Nancy Drew, and I remember watching the series on PBS with Jeremy Brett. I am also a fan of the Robert Downey Jr. movies, I like the show Elementary, and the new BBC Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch. I think the character of Sherlock Holmes is so fascinating—this kind of damaged genius. And he has this best friend [Watson] who goes through life and these mysteries with him. It’s just fun!
What are the joys and challenges of working on such a recognizable story?
I think that you can’t un-install people’s memories. Members of the audience will have their own relationship to a version of Sherlock Holmes, and it’s not my job to tell them that those are wrong, and it’s not my job to give that memory back to them exactly. It’s my job to help them see whatever is at the center of the character of Holmes that makes him so wonderfully compelling. It is about giving back to the audience something that they really love, but they haven’t had the chance to see again for the first time.
There’s actually nothing I’m afraid of as the director, because we’re working with great material. I don’t have to worry about being different for the sake of being different, or being the same for the sake of being the same. Conan Doyle created this character that has lived in people’s imaginations and in popular culture forever, practically. I can’t think of another written character who has so consistently remained part of the popular culture—Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot, almost. But they haven’t had the same renaissance that the Holmes character had and continues to have. It’s pretty amazing.
How have you and your designers approached the world of the play?
The central challenge for the design of Baskerville is figuring out how to go to a million different locations in the blink of an eye. The script has such a wonderful momentum to it, and it’s really important that the whole production has the same kind of forward-moving feeling. The production itself needs to operate almost like a mystery and a lot like a thriller, in that things can happen quickly and unexpectedly and you’re not quite sure where they came from.
The actors have to transform characters super quickly, and that’s part of the fun, too. Because the play is set in a real and wonderful time and place, it’s important that we locate things for the audience, which we’ll be doing a lot through clothing and dialect work.
How will music play a role in this production?
I think of the sound of the show as its own area, and not solely limited to the music, although it’s just fabulous that Ken comes from a place where he knows the music that he thinks of when he thinks about this world. The script in so many ways functions like a radio play. The way it gets information across doesn’t rely on anything other than what is said and what you hear, and I want to capture that in the way we work with sound and music. It’s all meant to be very evocative and very clever, the way Holmes is clever. And it should be scored the way great adventure stories are scored—it’s a dangerous adventure. And it’s exciting. And those things go with music, they just do.