Metro Weekly

Comedy’s Afoot at Arena Stage: Baskerville (Review)

Ken Ludwig's latest comic nod to Sherlock Holmes barks up the right tree

Baskerville: (L-R)  Hall and Wooddel Photo by Margot Schulman
Hall and Wooddel – Photo: Margot Schulman

Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe.

In his program notes to Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, playwright Ken Ludwig makes a cheerful case for keeping alive a particular theatrical genre of bygone days. He speaks of the old-fashioned experience when audiences were simply expected to sit back and enjoy a good adventure story while having “a whale of a good time.”

This goal of entertaining — as opposed to disturbing, unsettling or shocking–– hasn’t completely gone out of fashion. Many contemporary playwrights get the point and give it a modern twist. But Ludwig has a point. There are an awful lot of playwrights hellbent on demonstrating their emotional and intellectual chops through a prism of personal crises. Indeed, today’s theater-goers are probably better prepared than most to work a suicide hotline. They’ll have certainly heard it all before.

So it is refreshing to find that Ludwig’s Baskerville is just what it claims to be: a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Of course, it has been abridged, adapted and generally adulterated into an evening of campy — and occasionally quite witty — fun. But it is absolutely what Ludwig wants it to be: thoroughly entertaining.

As for the intended audience, have a look at your theater companion. If they lean towards musical theater they will thoroughly enjoy themselves. If they are a fan of BBC Sherlock, and they keep all their expectations in check, they will appreciate the nicely-curated atmosphere and some of the more off-piste jokes — visual and otherwise. If your guest is of a mysterious persuasion, your litmus test will be the joke about the Christian at the door in the first act.

As Sherlock, Gregory Wooddell sits very comfortably in Ludwig’s fast-paced contrivance of late-Victorian England. He has a convincing accent that allows him to relish the role and brings a pleasingly comic wild-eyed-yet-buttoned-down aspect to the detective. Wooddell’s skillset is quite subtle; while his character may not be purveyor of some of the bigger laughs, he ensures a strong continuity to the shenanigans by keeping his Holmes a memorable force in the proceedings, even when not on stage. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s easy on the eye and knows how to fill a suit. As Doctor Watson, Lucas Hall (struggling a bit with the accent) is another anchor amid the hijinks, neatly depicting Holmes’ slightly proper, mystified assistant.

Baskerville: Bahorek Photo by Margot Schulman
Bahorek – Photo: Margot Schulman

And with four other actors playing numerous, mostly comedic, roles in a very clever and often giggle-worthy display of stage direction, maintaining the narrative is essential. Of the three, and stealing his every scene, Stanley Bahorek stands out for his superbly idiosyncratic characters and comic timing. This is an actor who knows exactly when to mug for the audience and when to forward the drama, whether in comic mode or otherwise. His other talent: simultaneously giving the mainstream crowd what they want while slipping in some much funnier and more irreverent humor for the rabble.

A close second is Jane Pfitsch, carrying almost all the female roles. Among her numerous comic turns is a clever rendering of Ludwig’s reference to the iconic Frau Blucher of Young Frankenstein fame. Micheal Glenn rounds out the trio as Sir Henry Baskerville and Inspector Lestrade among others. Glenn has a good presence and is adept at keeping his characters clear, though they tend towards stock. It’s not his fault Ludwig makes Henry a Texan, but perhaps Glenn could have had a bit more off-beat fun with the interpretation. Playing The Man of Mystery, Milo Tindale works seamlessly with props and people alike.

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Even with this talented cast, in a production with this much going on it still takes a strong hand to keep all the plates in the air. Director Amanda Dehnert keeps the cohesion and pace intact whether the moment is focused or chaotic. It’s a delicate balance and she gets it right.

And that’s all there is to it: joyful, old-fashioned entertainment. No psychological interpretations necessary and no need to brace for unspeakable revelations. This is unmitigated theatrical fun, nothing less and very much something more.

Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery (starstarstarstar) runs to Feb. 22 at Arena’s Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $45 to $98. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.

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