Philadelphia Theatre Company’s dazzling production of Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville comes to us as part of a trifecta – Princeton’s McCarter Theatre and Washington’s Arena Stage have also done it, though there’s a new cast here.
It’s good news for everybody – more people can experience the visual wizardry of this endlessly inventive show, which is a kind of bewitching conjurer’s trick. For starters, five actors play multiple roles (one is Holmes, another is Watson, and a three-person ensemble plays everybody else).
Even more complex are the multiple locations – and that’s where the genius comes in. On a largely empty stage, the designers and director manage to pull settings seemingly out of thin air. One moment, we’re in a fog-bound moor, looking at a distant manor house; the next, in a spring flower garden. Carriages and animals (and doors and wind and rainstorms) come at us in an instant. Some effects are achieved with technology – the spectacular lighting design is visible from the start – but more are done through simple means, appropriately reminding us of the kind of trickery that 19th Century melodrama audiences would have enjoyed.
I recommend Baskerville unhesitatingly to anyone who loves theatricality for its own sake. You’ll find it here by the barrel-full – at once timeless, and startlingly new. The behind-the-scenes magicians who pulled it off deserve top billing here – they include Amanda Dehnert (director), Daniel Ostling (set designer), Jess Goldstein (costumes) and Philip S. Rosenberg and Joel Shier (lights).
One great effect is the occasional looming shadow – the perpetrator’s silhouette, perhaps? These images remind us that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original The Hound of the Baskervilles, the most beloved of all Sherlock Holmes’ tales, is indeed a murder story – and a pretty creepy one.
You won’t find that here. Playwright Ken Ludwig is a master farceur, and his Baskerville takes the comic route every time. There’s considerable pleasure in it – as with the design, many of the best bits are still-funny old gags – but I wish the joking wasn’t quite so relentless, completely devouring any suspense.
The wildly virtuosic ensemble actors also ramp up the humor. Their heightened style struck me as akin to the campy posturing often found in Gilbert and Sullivan productions – and similarly, for me, a little of it goes a long way. Even within the limits of Ludwig’s script, I can imagine a Baskerville that takes the show more seriously – and benefits from it. It is possible to do funny and scary at the same time – look no further than MGM’s classic take on the The Wizard of Oz.
Still, the performers – Crystal Finn, Adam Green, and Matt Zambrano – are very good at the broad stuff (though some accents are more effective than others). Ultimately, I most enjoyed Ron Menzel’s twitchy, yet oddly compelling – and knowingly underplayed – Holmes. Henry Clarke is a handsome, grounded Dr. Watson.
Baskerville is in PTC’s holiday slot, and I think it will certainly delight audiences young and old. I should say, though, that both adults (well, this adult, at least) and children might find the action difficult to follow. Narrative coherence is not Baskerville’s forte – but given its considerable charms, I doubt many people will object.
Baskerville, Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., (215) 985-0420, through December 27th. www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org