“Unpredictable, my dear Watson.” The real Sherlock Holmes would likely intone, if he was in the audience watching the dazzling stage debut of Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery at Arena Stage.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth still shows off his famous skills of deduction, but with the guiding hand of acclaimed comedic playwright Ken Ludwig and his inimitable ear for dialogue, the show delivers a manic explosion of hilarious, finely tuned stagecraft.
…a master class in olde tyme theatre and a bellyful of laughs.
Ludwig’s fascination with iconic figure with the meerschaum pipe and houndstooth cape is evident–even creating the Holmes-based parlor comedy The Game’s Afoot or Holmes for the Holidays, which has seen regional productions in McLean and Alexandria. In fact, it is closer to the madcap action of The 39 Steps, in which our hero is thrust into action amongst a revolving cast of actors playing multiple roles.
Here he is using the story of the Hound of the Baskervilles, a particularly gripping mystery involving murder, deceit, a trip to the moors, and a legendary curse of a hound from hell terrorizing the countryside. By infusing the tight drama with outrageous characters and sight gags, we have a wonderful acting opportunity for the players in true Shakespearean role-swapping tradition.
Gregory Wooddell is our Holmes and Lucas Hall plays sidekick Watson. Both accomplished performers, their interpretations are nicely nuanced and spot on. Woddell, seen in Shakespeare theatre’s The Importance of Being Ernest last year, easily falls into the haughty role of the detective and adds a cheeky knowing glance to the audience. Only three other actors comprise the numerous other roles. Michael Glenn, Stanley Bahorek, and Jane Pfitsch regale us in a sometimes amazing collection of character types, from austere butlers to ingénues to messenger boys. Bahorek was a chameleon, playing a brassy Castilian hotel clerk, a nebbishy professor or a mysterious butler.
As much as the actors are front and center, this is almost as much as technical success. Among an all-star team of production talent, Set Designer Daniel Ostling has performed his fine sleight of hand at several Arena productions as well as other regional venues. The set was filled with trap doors opening for props just when a character called for it. Other props wire-rolled on and off, keeping the show in constant motion. Jess Goldstein, who provided costume design, is also to be commended. Not often called out for a bow, costume design in this case for the quite acclaimed Goldstein reflected period and also utility, for the quick changes. Sound Design by Joshua Horvath and Raymond Nardelli provided realistic natural sounds whose crispness rivaled a home theatre. One of the first things I noticed was that Arena had a phalanx of lights pointing onstage. Lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg created many controlled offset effects for the dizzying locales imagined by the players.
Director Amanda Dennett had a lot of talent to work with and didn’t waste it at all. She handled this premier production with crispness while not missing the laughs. Admittedly, there is no commentary on the human condition contained here, but that’s ok. As Ludwig himself says:
“There is a great tradition of melodrama in our theater, both English and American. In melodramas, we sit on the edge of our seats watching exciting stories where anything can happen…. I’d love us to return, at least now and then, to nights at the theater when we feel the way we do in the movies watching ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’: sitting breathless in the dark, mesmerized by the action, munching bags of popcorn. “
Baskerville–a master class in olde tyme theatre and a bellyful of laughs.
Running Time: 2 hours with a fifteen minute intermission.
Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery presented at Arena Stage from Jan 16 to Feb. 22, 2015 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC. For information or tickets to this or upcoming shows, 202-488-3300 or online.