A story of aristocrats and fear and horror is essentially de-fanged by comedy in Ken Ludwig’s BASKERVILLE: A SHERLOCK HOLMES MYSTERY. Not a Gothic thriller, this adaptation is an exaggerated comic drama, a breathlessly quick, cartoon-like escapade. Along with suitably horrible howls of hound, victim, or both, terror is served up with energetic spoofing.
Ludwig’s advice to directors is: ”Go conceive of a way to do this.” McCarter did it with trap doors. At Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, director Bill Van Horn, who also plays a very creditable Dr. Watson, does it without trap doors or even multiple drops – a snapof the fingers can signal a scene change. The one backdrop is of a late Victorian room at 221B Baker Street. Slides shown on clever small “windows” on either side of the performing space reveal various locations. John Kolbinski’s use of music, noise, and tightly coordinated sound effects is a masterpiece of exactness. Clever scenic design by Scott Groh and J. Dominic Chacon’s dramatic lighting set the scenes, as the basic set does not change.
Even with all the manic energy on stage, the show doesn’t lose the thread of the story or the basic Sherlockitude of the reasoning mind. With no deerstalker hat or Inverness cape, Ian Merrill Peakes plays a milder, less idiosyncratic, but nonetheless effective Holmes. He’s not a classic hard-nosed Holmes like Basil Rathbone (1939,Twentieth Century Fox, and later Universal Studios) or a rather uptight one a la Peter Cushing (1959, Hammer Films). Neither is he a weird scientific genius like Benedict Cumberbatch (2010-17 BBC TV). In this version Holmes, undercover, is seen less than many of the other characters. Dan Hodge, Jered McLenigan, and notably Sarah Gliko play their many parts brilliantly and rapidly, with innumerable entrances and exits. It’s frenetic and could have been confusing, yet each role is performed so distinctively and the costumes are so outré that one character can’t be taken for another. Much credit must be given to Costume Designer Kayla Speedy and whoever handled backstage costume and flamboyant wig changes on the fly. I’d love to see a video of the controlled mania of that process.
BTW, When he wrote Hound of the Baskervilles Sir Arthur Conan Doyle not only resuscitated a deceased Sherlock Holmes, he rescued his own legacy. Actually in HOUND he didn’t exactly bring Holmes back to life, but placed the events back in time, before the famous detective’s fatal plunge at the Reichenbach Falls. With the success of the story, Conan Doyle went back to writing more of Sherlock’s adventures, re-engineering the previous demise of Holmes as an elaborate trick.
The Walnut’s Independence Studio on 3’s production of Ludwig’s HOUND has it all – splendid yet winking actors, hidden outrageous villain, comically steadfast detectives, mysterious atmospherics. Howls, and the fog of the moors and the steam of railway stations set it up, and the imagination takes it from there. The audience in the sold out studio clearly enjoyed this boisterous theatrical romp.
[Independence Studio on 3, Walnut Street Theatre] January 2–February 4, 2018; walnutstreettheatre.org