If there’s one thing the recent spate of cinematic and televised incarnations of Sherlock Holmes has proven, it’s that after more than a century, the appeal of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s celebrated sleuth is as strong as it ever was. Now there’s yet another take on Holmes: Baskerville – A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, by Ken Ludwig. It takes Conan Doyle’s most famous novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), and turns it from a thriller into a comedy. I am happy to report that Holmes survives Baskerville with his reputation and his dignity intact.
In Baskerville, Ludwig takes Doyle’s novel and, while making very few changes to the plot, transforms it into a high-speed, knockabout farce in the style of the popular stage version of The 39 Steps. Besides the two actors playing Holmes and his sidekick Doctor Watson, there are only three other actors in Baskerville, and those three play about forty roles between them. The three actors frequently run offstage to make quick costume changes; in one case an actor changes his costume onstage, and later another actor switches hats back and forth so he can play two characters in the same scene.
Director Amanda Dehnert guides her cast and her stage crew with astonishing precision: when Doctor Watson needs a chair, one rolls onstage for him to sit on; when Holmes exits a scene, he descends below the stage via a trap door; and when Dehnert needs to transport us to a garden, a bed of plastic flowers falls from the sky and sticks to the stage at just the right position. From a technical standpoint, Baskerville is quite impressive.
Ron Menzel is excellent in the leading role: his Holmes is polished and sophisticated, but with a dash of arrogance appropriate for “the world’s greatest consulting detective.” It’s too bad the plot forces Holmes offstage for long stretches, so Menzel doesn’t get enough of a chance to dominate the action. Henry Clarke is quite appealing as Watson, handling the majority of the investigating (and the comedy) with an amiable spirit. Adam Green, Matt Zambrano and Crystal Finn play all the remaining roles, and their skill and versatility are a wonder to behold. (The scene where Clarke, Green and Zambrano make their way across a storm-ravaged moor while struggling against the wind with every step is a marvelous demonstration of how mime skills can be applied to conventional drama.)
At times, Ludwig’s comedic style is so relentlessly silly and inappropriate, and I found it somewhat tiresome by the end of act one. Take, for instance, Mrs. Barrymore, a servant at Baskerville Hall: she has a thick German accent and pronounces V’s like W’s, and vice versa. So when she says “His name is Wictor, he is a conwict,” nobody – not even Doctor Watson, whom we’re supposed to be rooting for – can understand what she’s saying. (Ludwig is a strong believer in the comedic appeal of funny accents, but Baskerville gives us far too many – Texas, Scottish, Cockney, even Castilian.) Later, when Watson says that Mrs. Barrymore is “like something out of Frankenstein,” she immediately walks onstage wearing an Elsa Lanchester Bride of Frankenstein fright wig. I have to admit though that the audience was really enjoying that moment and there were several loud laughs throughout the performance.
Baskerville – A Sherlock Holmes Mystery is one great-looking show. It may take place in the late 19t century, but it doesn’t look quaint – it has an appealing, slick veneer. While a set designer is credited (Daniel Ostling), there are very few “sets” in the traditional sense; large items, such as a staircase, only appear onstage occasionally. Instead, the stage of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre is dominated by a large projection screen in the rear that changes the setting from the streets of London to the moors of Devonshire.
The stage is often filled with fog, and it’s ringed by nearly a hundred spotlights (Philip S. Rosenberg and Joel Shier provide the highly effective lighting). Some distorted guitar from Sound Designer Joshua Horvath makes the moors seem even more dangerous. and Jess Goldstein’s costumes are excellent.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.
Baskerville – A Sherlock Holmes Mystery plays through December 27, 2015 at Philadelphia Theatre Company, performing at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre – Broad and Lombard Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 985-0420, or purchase them online.
David Siegel reviews Baskerville – A Sherlock Holmes Mystery at Arena Stage in Washington, DC on DCMetroTheaterArts.