Warning, Sherlock Holmes fans: If you’re a dedicated viewer of CBS’ “Elementary” or consider A. Conan Doyle’s novel “The Hound of the Baskervilles” one of the greatest suspense novels in the English language, you’ll need to reset your thinking for Baskerville.
For Baskerville is a madcap sendup of what you might hold dear about that Doyle classic, done up in the style of The 39 Steps.
We know this as early as the second scene, in which Michael Glenn, dressed as a scullery maid, listens with a lurid, vapid grin as Holmes (Gregory Woodell) uses a cane left by a forgetful visitor to deduce that visitor’s history, and to tell it to Watson (Lucas Hall) and Mrs. Hudson (Pfitsch).
The story then breaks out: the visitor is Dr. John Mortimer (Stanley Bahorek), who tells the detective that his friend, Charles Baskerville, was found dead under mysterious circumstances in the moors of his ancestral home. The House of Baskerville, Mortimer explains, is subject to a legendary curse, in which a gigantic Hound of Hell strikes down members of the Baskerville family. He engages Holmes to protect Sir Charles’ closest heir, Henry Baskerville (Glenn), who is to arrive from Texas that very day.
After a bit of detective work which principally reveals how clever and deadly Holmes’ new foe is, our protagonists meet with Mortimer and Henry Baskerville, and Holmes dispatches Watson to the desolate Scottish moors with his new client.
Watson meets Baskerville’s eccentric neighbor Stapleton (Bahorek) and his lissome sister Belle (Pfitsch); observes a mysterious shrouded figure (Milo Tindale) in the foggy distance; has many adventures and comes close to losing his life. If you want to know Doyle’s details, I recommend you go here and read the novel. If you want to see Ludwig’s version played for laughs, then you should see Baskerville.
The production is handsomely mounted and tightly directed by Amanda Dehnert, with a superfine performance by Michael Glenn and an absolutely brilliant one by Jane Pfitsch, who gets to play one character or another at least once in nearly every scene. Adapter Ken Ludwig writes some very clever dialogue, and the production values are as high as Arena production values ever are, which makes them very high indeed.
Baskerville’s high-budget tricks will make your eyes bug out. Do you need a garden? Flowers drop from overhead in military precision and lodge themselves upright on the stage floor. Does a character look out a window? One is pulled out of the floor. Special effects pop up with astonishing frequency, performers rise and lower through elaborate trap doors and so many lights surround the stage that U2 could walk on and perform, no problem.
Jan 16 – Feb 22
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 202-488-3300
Baskerville shares many tropes with The Thirty-Nine Steps – the actor who changes character multiple times by changing hats; the self-conscious pause in the narrative while an actor rushes offstage to become the next incoming character; and the like.
The 39 Steps, of course, holds no copyright on these gags, but a joke is always less funny the second-time around. Like 39 Steps, Baskerville is designed to show off the skill of the artists, rather than the power of the story.
And make no mistake – these artists have mad skills. Pfitsch, who inhabits a dozen or more characters and changes them with lightning speed, is simply jaw-dropping. She gives us the core of each character with a few lines, or sometimes with only a facial expression.Glenn, too, is magnificent, particularly as the bumptious, outlandish Henry Baskerville, who manages to win our sympathy despite his occasional arrogance and naiveté. Bahorek does good and funny work, although the characters he takes on all seem to share similar personalities. Woodell and Hall, as Holmes and Watson, are also sufficient, although in a production geared to celebrate theater tricks rather than story they seem, weirdly, to be secondary characters.
Ludwig and Dehnert conspire to put on a witty production, and the opening night audience was laughing along with pleasing regularity. Comedy is a rarity in our town. Silliness even rarer. If that’s what’s missing in your life, then it’s elementary, my dear reader. Get to Arena Stage.