During the rehearsal process for a play, most actors spend time digging into the psychology and physicality of their character. How do they sound? How do they move? What was their childhood like? For Brian Owen, star of “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” at Long Wharf Theatre, that process is a little more difficult than normal. That’s because he plays 17 distinct characters in Ken Ludwig’s madcap retelling of the famous mystery.
“It's a playground,” Owen says when we talked over the phone, “You really have to dig in and think, how can I make each character completely distinct from the others? Because there really can't be any bleed between them. I need to make sure this character is hunched with a low voice while the next one has to be taller, maybe played with a higher pitched voice and a different class of dialect.” It’s a challenge, but a fun for Owen who says the “difficulty and puzzle-making” of this role is what’s drawn him back to “Baskerville” over and over again.
While shows like “Sweeney Todd,” “Camelot” and “Peter and the Starcatcher” come up on his resume, Long Wharf marks the fourth time Owen will star in “Baskerville” and the third time with director Brendan Fox. “It’s a new cast and a lot of new ideas, so it doesn't feel like I'm retracing the same steps,” Owen says when asked if performing the role so many times can be tiring, “A lot of the initial work that has to go into a show was already done, so I can start from a more comfortable level. I can deepen the work that's already happened. That's really nice.”
“Baskerville,” which opens February 28th at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, is a silly and “whirlwind” version of the Arthur Conan Doyle tale with all the supporting characters played by three actors in a kaleidoscope of over 60 roles a la “The 39 Steps.” “It makes for a very delightful, theatrical evening,” but never loses sight of the classic story, according to Owen. “It is a Sherlock Holmes mystery and a whodunit first and foremost.”
When asked what roles Owen most looks forward to playing each night, he calls out Milker, a street urchin who works for Holmes, and a Castilian desk clerk, “who is basically just an excuse for a ridiculous accent.” His favorite, though, may be Stapleton, a butterfly collector “in the long line of British eccentrics” who Owen just “adores playing.”
When talking about the difficulties and joys of this play, Owen refers to the bag of tools he needs to deploy when creating so many characters. That unique skill set has been crafted over many years of study and professional experience. He grew up in Utah and has been performing ever since his mother put him in a play at the tender age of four. After training in theater at Santa Fe University of Art & Design and Florida State University, Owen quickly started to get work in regional theaters across the country. Besides drama and musical theater, Owen has also done sketch comedy in Sante Fe and in a series of YouTube videos (including a Donald Trump-themed “Julius Caesar” parody).
Given his varied background, “Baskerville” seems like the ideal match for Owen. “You know, I have not thought of that and that's a really good point,” he says when asked how sketch comedy influences his work, “Within a sketch, you have to have what is unique and funny about each character laid out in one or two lines. That's really necessary in a show like this.”
I spoke to Owen mid-way through the rehearsal process. The show was fully blocked, but Owen and the company were still working to refine the material, add new gags and give their characters more nuance. As much as he is enjoying the process and getting to know his new cast-mates, there is one factor Owen can’t wait to add to the equation. “We just need an audience,” he says, “Especially for a show like this, it lives and dies on that connection.” It’s the “best feeling,” he explained, when the hypothetical work you do in the rehearsal room gets tested. “Did this get a laugh? Does that get a gasp? Then we can go back into rehearsals and be alchemists. Thinking, how can we shift it based on the audience’s reaction. I love that process.”
“Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” runs February 28 through March 25 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT. For more information, visit their website.