MYSTERY ON THE MOORS: Doctor Watson (Lucas Hall) and Sherlock Holmes (Gregory Wooddell) investigate reports of a deadly gigantic hound on the Devonshire Moors, in McCarter Theatre’s world premiere production of Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through March 29. (Photo by Margot Shulman)
You might think you know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective, but Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery will take you into surprising, hilarious realms of sheer theatricality, wild inventiveness, and over-the-top farce.
Running at McCarter‘s Matthews Theatre through March 29, Mr. Ludwig’s world premiere adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a bloodcurdling 1901 story of a family curse, a gigantic hound attacking its victims on the foggy Devonshire Moors, and the indomitable Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Doctor Watson navigating a slew of suspicious characters and situations to pursue the case, is as much about the magic of theater as it is about murder and mystery.
Baskerville is larger than life in its spirited embrace of the melodrama of the original story and also in its sheer delight in the rich array of theatrical contrivances necessary to create this world on a bare stage: the exuberant, versatile acting with just five actors playing more than 40 parts; wildly imaginative props and set; the astonishing abundance, cleverness and speed of costuming; and the sensational lighting, music, and sound effects.
Sherlockians and other murder mystery fans will enjoy the intrigues, the shrewd plotting and brilliant detective work, the colorful late 19th century world of London, the moors and the baronial manor of the Baskervilles, not to mention this “hero we can really believe in,” as Ludwig describes his protagonist, and the inevitable comparisons to Basil Rathbone (1939 movie), Jeremy Brett (1988 TV movie), and Benedict Cumberbatch (2012 BBC production).
But the greatest gifts to the audience here are the wild comedy, as Mr. Ludwig plays with plot, character and theatrical conventions, and the outstanding production values driven by the five brilliant actors and the dazzling technical feats involved in staging this action-packed melodrama.
The story is, of course, full of suspense and thrilling drama, but Baskerville delights in breaking through the fourth wall to show its audience its clever theatricality, as props and set pieces fly in through trap doors or from the wings or the rafters, venues change with the rising of a sunken platform, characters appear and disappear, then appear and disappear again, with the speed of a change of costume or maybe just hat and wig and accent. Over the top? Larger than life? Contrived? Artificial? That’s melodrama. That’s farce. Maybe that’s what theater — or at least this particular brand of theater — is all about. The performers and crews are obviously relishing the theatrical adventure, and it’s impossible not to enjoy it with them.
Director Amanda Dehnert keeps the complicated plot moving at a torrid pace and skillfully balances suspenseful drama with broad, deftly timed comedy. Mr. Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo) knows his craft, and McCarter’s first-rate actors and production team ensure that this material engages the audience and never becomes tedious.
Produced in association with Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage, where it opened in January, Baskerville is a classic whodunit. Of course, as Doctor Watson, both narrator and major player, draws the audience into the intrigue, the question is not only “who?” but also “why?” and “how?” and “when will he or she do it again?”
Early in the first of two acts, a visit to Sherlock Holmes’ 221B Baker Street London residence by an eccentric Dr. Mortimer (Stanley Bahorek) draws the redoubtable Sherlock Holmes (Gregory Wooddell) and his no-nonsense assistant Doctor Watson (Lucas Hall) into the mystery of the Baskerville curse.
Mr. Wooddell and Mr. Hall create a dynamic duo indeed, contrasting and complementary in their teamwork as they collaborate to solve the case. Mr. Wooddell’s Holmes is a dashing, histrionic figure, fearless and charismatic, while Mr. Hall’s Watson, more conservative, cautious, and approachable, provides the audience with a character foil to Holmes and an entrée into this wild Sherlockian world. As Mr. Ludwig states in his program notes, “[Sherlock Holmes] is quixotic, dangerous, and inspiring. Watson meanwhile is steady, stalwart, and wonderfully earthbound. Together they are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Ariel and Caliban, fire and earth.” Mr. Wooddell and Mr. Hall are powerful and convincing in portraying these figures and their legendary, crime-solving teamwork.
Threatening to upstage this duo, however, are the three supporting players and the more than 40 characters that they play. Mr. Bahorek’s transformations, for example, are a delight to behold, from the business-like Mortimer to the ominous, misshapen Barrymore, gothic caretaker of the Baskerville estate, to the Castilian hotel clerk, then the shadowy figure of the Devonshire naturalist, butterfly-catcher Stapleton and others.
Michael Glenn as the Texan (one of Mr. Ludwig’s liberties with the original text) nephew and heir to the deceased Sir Charles Baskerville, injects a generous dose of humor — lots of Texas jokes for starters — and incongruity into the proceedings, as he and Watson probe the mysteries of the moors. Though Mr. Glenn, also playing the prickly, provocative rival Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, as well as a scullery maid and others, is no less busy than Mr. Bahorek, it is the amazing Jane Pfitsch who wins the chameleon prize for most characters, costumes, and wigs, not to mention the prize for most chaotic, fast-paced backstage costume changes. Her bewildering array of roles includes an eager London lad assisting Holmes and Watson, the frighteningly austere housekeeper Mrs. Barrymore, the lovely ingénue Miss Stapleton, mystery woman Laura Lyons, and, by her own count (I lost count early on!) as reported in an interview, 11 or 12 additional characters requiring seven wigs and three additional special hats with hair attached!
All of these transformations are great fun to watch, thanks to the extraordinarily proficient actors, who are able to present rapid-fire characterizations through voice, gesture, body language, and emotion and the brilliant, creative costume designs by Jess Goldstein, with the expert assistance of wig designer Leah J. Loukas and dialect coach Gillian Lane-Plescia.
Daniel Ostling’s set design, lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg, and sound design by Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli provide ample opportunities for theater magic in action. The mostly bare stage with lighting instruments clearly visible on scaffolding and lighting poles, footlights, and a cyclorama on the back wall, along with bone-chilling sound and music effects, in keeping with the larger-than-life murder mystery tone here, help to create the numerous rapidly changing locales.
“My hope,” Mr. Ludwig writes in his program notes, “is that Baskerville is about the theater as much as it is about Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. I want it to be seen not only as a tale of fellowship and courage, but also as an adventure in theater making itself.” This Arena Stage-McCarter production, with its infinitely creative design and production team and these high-energy, high-versatility, highly imaginative performers more than fulfill Mr. Ludwig’s hope. It’s an entertaining evening for Sherlockians, theater-lovers and audiences of all ages.
McCarter Theatre’s production of Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville” will run through March 29 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton. Visit www. Mccarter.org or call (609) 258-2787 for tickets and information.