By Andy Arnold
If you enter Greenbelt Arts Center expecting Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery to focus on Holmes and Watson, you will be disappointed. What you will find instead is a hilarious whodunit featuring a cast of five playing some 42 characters, featuring costume changes at the drop of the hat.
After Sir Charles Baskerville, a rich uncle, dies in a supposedly haunted moor—this is about all the book, movie, and play have in common—Holmes and Watson are called in to verify if the death by fright was natural or murder. A nephew from Texas, Henry Baskerville, appears as the next, possibly cursed, kin. A neighbor of the late Sir Charles, Dr. Mortimer, seeks Holmes’ assistance before the Texan arrives. Holmes is enamored by the prospects and the case begins.
Is it the bloodcurdling mastiff of local lore that ate the evil Sir Hugbaskerville’s throat decades earlier, or is there a logical explanation? How loathsome was Hugbaskerville (whose name is a spoof on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sir Hugo Baskerville)? His dog murdered the abusive master thus beginning the myth–if the Baskerville hound is only a legend, that is. The audience spends the next nearly two hours in London, on a train and finally in dark, toxic Baskerville Hall finding out.
The arts center is an intimate house with seating for about 60. Baskerville uses what starts as Holmes’ living room as the set throughout the play. Subtle lighting adjustments and projected views on a side screen help set scenes. However, a blank canvas backdrop with different backgrounds projected onto it would have been better. Director Ann Lowe-Barrett and Stage Manager Susan Brall do the best they can using an overstuffed chair as two train seats, an opera seat and an overstuffed chair.
There is also a subplot of forbidden love and how that is resolved. What would a Sherlock Holmes play be without appearance versus reality?
Two unsung stars of the performance are Tina Waldrup and Stan Livengood, the stagehands who assist Murray, Max Pugh and Bette Cassatt, in their numerous costume changes. The three “other” actors are brilliant in their multiple roles and seemingly staying in character for each. The roles are seemingly too different in physical and speech requirements for any one character.
The cast works brilliantly together. Sandy Irving plays Holmes and Bob Singer is Watson. All five local veterans keep their dialects including a German-sounding speech by one of Cassatt’s characters (Mrs. Barrymore) and an eastern European tongue by her husband (played by Murray). Dialect coach Pauline Griller-Mitchell did a great job with the troupe.
A few apparent faux pas are added to the work for comedic effect. For instance, as Holmes approaches a closet, a stagehand reaches his coat out and he says, “Stage hand.” In other scenes, an “other” actor will be on stage when Holmes voices a scene describing who the “other” is playing next. He then repeats the cue as the light bulb goes off and the “other” character races off to prepare for his or her next scene.
When Mrs. Barrymore’s heavy accent forces her to stumble over a vital word in her dialogue a few times, Barrymore drops his beard and repeats the word in American English as the other characters finally understand. Pugh plays both Henry Baskerville and Lestrade in another scene as he switches both shoulders and trench coats. It’s hilarious. Silly, but funny.
Infused in the silliness is an interesting plot that leads to a surprise ending. The way the script is written, a director could change the ending with a couple of minor twists and change villains. The comedic effect is outstanding, but the play is also well acted. Lowe-Barrett stays true to Ludwig’s story and DC-area fans will be the winners for watching this one.
Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.