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'Hound of the Baskervilles' director enjoys return to Playhouse on Park

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Finding the right director for a theatrical production is not as elementary as one might think.

As West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park scheduled a serio-comic adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes mystery, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” matching a director sensitive to the off-kilter humor, unusual sight gags and unexpected puns of the show was of utmost importance.

Fortunately, the Playhosue knew just who to contact. They turned to Tom Ridgely, a New York-based director who had previously helmed their audience-pleasing staging of the funny and inventive “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged,” which covered the Bard’s complete canon in less than 90 minutes, and who subsequently returned to mount a production of the Tony-Award winning comedy “Art,” which flirts with a potentially absurd situation.

With “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” in an adaptation as a comedy-mystery by Steven Canney and John Nicholson, director Ridgely is reunited with a pair of actors he has guided in his two previous outings with the Playhouse on Park, Sean Harris, the co-Artistic Director of the company, and Rich Hollman, a frequent performer on the Playhouse’s thrust stage.

It is clear that the director relishes the opportunity to work with these two actors again. “There are so many sides to the Sean-Rich dynamic,” Ridgely explains. “I’m really happy to be able to do this play with them. Rich and Sean have so much history together and the three of us work so well together that it lends itself to the fast and furious style of playing that is essential to the production.” He finds their ability to quickly understand each other accommodates the shorter rehearsal period for Playhouse on Park productions.

With Hollman as Sherlock Holmes and Harris as his sidekick, Dr. James Watson, the pair are joined by a third actor, Brennan Caldwell, who plays a variety of other parts. Ridgely was also familiar with Caldwell’s work, having directed him in a production of “Sweeney Todd” at Yale. “He played Sweeney and was great,” Ridgely recalls. “I was confident that he could do comedy and he turned out to be quick and funny.”

Ridgely anticipates that the iconic stature of Holmes and Watson as well as the audience’s general familiarity with their adventures will make the show especially meaningful and enjoyable. “I want the audience go have a good time,” he says, “that time will fly by, people will laugh, and everyone will be entertained, perhaps as a break from their other concerns during the busy holiday season.”

Delighted to be back at the Playhouse on Park for his third production, Ridgely is equally proud of having been involved with the company since its inaugural year. He had originally met Hollman when he served as the actor’s improvisation coach in New York. Harris and Hollman had attended graduate school together and kept in touch. When Harris told Hollman that he was starting this theater company in West Hartford and was looking for a director for one of their first productions, Hollman suggested Ridgely. Harris attended one of Ridgely’s productions in New York and offered the job to the director on the spot.

The director is also enjoying being back in the greater Hartford area. “I’ve gotten to know Hartford pretty well from my previous visits,” he explains, gaining an appreciation for the area’s history and sights. This visit he’s gotten himself a bicycle that has allowed him to explore new areas of the community in close-up detail. “The streets are so picturesque and the neighborhoods are lovely,” he adds.

In addition to a blossoming career as a free-lance director, Ridgely has a home base at Waterwell, a non-profit theater company formed by Ridgely and a classmate, the Tony-Award nominated actor, Arian Moayed (“Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo”) at their alma mater, Indiana University in Bloomington. After their first season in Bloomington, they moved the company to New York City.

According to Ridgely, Waterwall employs the ensemble model, in which directors, writers, actors, composers, and designers all collaborate during an extended workshop period to develop original work or to re-imagine classic works for contemporary audiences. Their production of “The Persians” in the mid-aughts received widespread critical and audience acclaim, which Ridgely said, “put us on the map and really got us going.”

Subsequent work has included developing a rock operetta on the last days of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a cabaret version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Marco Millions,” a concept album and a musical based on the book “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” and a musical based on the life of railroad tycoon, Jay Gould, called “The Wizard of Wall Street.”

Approximately four years ago, Waterwell was selected to run the Drama program at the Professional Performing Arts School in mid-town Manhattan, a middle-to-high school that offers programs in various performing arts specialties, each directed by a distinguished performing arts organization, such as Alvin Ailey Dance School, the School of the American Ballet, Rosie’s (O’Donnell’s) Theater Kids, and the National Chorale.

Waterwell’s director of education supervises the overall Drama program and Waterwell members including Ridgely and Moayed serve on the faculty. In addition to classes in Acting Technique, Voice and Movement, Dramatic Literature, Stagecraft and Directing, the program incorporates an original senior class theatrical piece each year created through the same collaborative developmental process used by Waterwell in developing its work, a process Ridgely calls “the Devising.” A professional playwright participates in the collaborative process along with the students to help shape the collaborative vision into a meaningful evening of theater.

“There’s nothing like this in the country,” Ridgely explains. The program is highly competitive and only 25 students are accepted for the incoming class each year, following a grueling audition. “The students learn from practicing theatrical professionals,” he states, “which gives them a leg up in being prepared for a career on stage. And even if a student ultimately decides that a career in the theater is not for him or her, they nonetheless have acquired a lot of skills, from public speaking to collaboration, that will serve them well in any type of career they may pursue.”

In order to keep pace with the latest technological developments and the new ways of presenting entertainment to the public, Waterwell has recently started a film company to develop movie, television and video products that can be geared to any number of emerging formats. And the company frequently revisits some of its previous works, to see if they could benefit from refocusing, tightening, and a new perspective.

“There are any number of stories that our company wants to tell,” Ridgely says of Waterwell. “We’re going to keep developing what we do at the school and what we do as a company,” he adds, of their creative mix of originality and adaptation.

In many ways, Ridgely’s approach to directing “The Hound of the Baskervilles” reflects a lot of his experience at Waterwell. Here you have an original short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that two contemporary playwrights have adapted with their own comedic spin for modern audiences, with a director and three actors closely collaborating on various aspects of the physical production which will require the careful planning and staging of any number of comedic elements, to ultimately create a unique theatrical vision designed to thrill audiences at the Playhouse on Park.

For information and tickets, contact the Playhouse on Park box office at 860.523.5900, ext. 10, or visit their website at www.playhouseonpark.org

To keep up with theatrical activities in Connecticut, consider subscribing to the Hartford Arts Examiner by clicking on the word “Subscribe” at the top of this article. A copy of each new article will be sent to your inbox. To keep up with theatrical activities in western Massachusetts and the Berkshires, consider subscribing to the Springfield Art Examiner.

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