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Sherlock Holmes has been around for more than 130 years in all forms of media. The character's continuing popularity apparently allows infinite room for more versions, so Tony Award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor, Crazy For You) joined the crowded field in 2015 with his own take. Raleigh Little Theatre's production of the awkwardly titled Ken Ludwig's Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery does its best to minimize weaknesses in the script through some astonishing performances, a number of clever technical effects, and a few twists of its own.
Ludwig's script closely follows the original 1901 Arthur Conan Doyle story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which Holmes and Dr. Watson, set out to solve the mysterious murders surrounding the Baskerville family, purportedly involving a giant, bloodthirsty hellhound. The main twists in Ludwig's version are that it's played for laughs and it's written for only five actors: one each for Holmes and Watson, with the other three playing over 40 characters among them.
If this sounds suspiciously like the play The 39 Steps, you're right. Ludwig admits he was influenced by seeing that popular sendup of the famous Alfred Hitchcock film. If only Ludwig hadn't been so obvious in employing many of that play's ingenious ideas, not to mention his inclusion of easily recognizable bits from the movie Young Frankenstein.
And if only Ludwig hadn't been so focused on keeping all the details of the original Doyle story, with its dizzying number of characters and plot strands to remember. Instead, he has streams of narration from Watson throughout the play, even starting it off with a character reading out pages of Baskerville history while the audience waits for something to happen. Overall, there's so much verbiage from Holmes, Watson, and assorted characters that momentum is lost time and again while they provide details to set up what thankfully become hilarious and surprising segments. Despite these flaws, RLT's cast and creative team valiantly attempt to surmount them, with a high rate of success.
Dennis R. Berfield's massive two-story unit set has a balcony at the back, a long flight of steps down one side, and multiple doors and exits on both levels, leaving the main playing area free to become whatever locations are required. These are sometimes indicated by a lowered gate, a set of curtains, or a wall of picture frames, but mostly they are conjured by John Maruca's projections of art works (both representational and abstract) onto what at first seem like solid walls on both levels. Much humor is derived by characters appearing and disappearing through those walls, which are reflective material split in the middle. Sometimes the material is lit from behind for shadow effects and the appearance of windows. Additionally, the locations are projected on the front of the balcony, often with witty descriptions. Liz Droessler's lighting design aids the spooky sides of the story that take place in the murky night, underpinned by Brennan Reilly's sound design of baying hounds, howling winds, and train whistles.
Guest director Jeremy Skidmore has mapped out the intricate paths that the three actors playing multiple parts must take to make their frenetic exits and lightning quick re-entrances as different characters with different costumes, wigs, and accessories. Jenny Mitchell's costumes are not only fine period pieces, especially the menswear, but they also have been constructed to be quickly removed and worn in layers.
On opening night, the three "ensemble" actors stole the show, each consummate comedians who knew how to sell the gags and pratfalls without resorting to mugging and milking. Kirsten Ehlert easily limned everything from an urchin boy to a sullen Scandinavian servant to a beautiful damsel in distress. Her accent work was particularly impressive. Tony Hefner showed why he is an old hand at this sort of thing, sporting a marvelous range of stuffy, prissy, and scowling doctors, landed gentlemen, and elderly ladies. His weary, slow-talking Baskerville servant, Barrymore, was astutely underplayed.
First among equals was Gus Allen in one of his most engaging performances, robustly inhabiting Henry Baskerville, the distant heir from Texas come to claim the family manor. His Texas twang and aw-shucks personality were particularly endearing when he became moonstruck over a neighboring young woman. Allen also entertainingly offered a crass Inspector Lestrade, a messenger boy, and the elderly Hugo Baskerville.
Skidmore's decision to cast women as Holmes and Watson completed the script's genderbending vibe. Mary Rowland's Holmes, complete with deerstalker hat and Inverness cape, had the proper stature, intelligence, and room-filling personality. Her commanding voice and perceptive delivery projected authority. Ludwig doesn't do the performer playing Holmes any favors with a wordy part that really isn't the focus of the script. In fact, Ludwig gives more time to Watson, both as narrator and investigation participant.
Laurel Ullman is one of the area's finest actors, but her performance as Watson was curiously placid and uninvolved, often speaking quietly in a realistic style that seemed at odds with the heightened manner of the others. Although the script also doesn't give Watson much to work with, there should have been room for a more energized and personable Watson.
The cast and creative team's efforts allow for a number of laughs and some all-in-fun little scares. It's best to go into the production with some knowledge of the Doyle story and an expectation of an undemanding entertainment for a pleasant night out.
Ken Ludwig's Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery continues through Sunday, April 28. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.