That savage hound is loose on the moor again and Basil Rathbone is nowhere in sight. Fortunately, however, comic sleuths are on the case via Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” currently at the Philadelphia Theatre Company presentation of the McCarter Theater/Arena Stage production, directed with surgical comic precision by Amanda Dehnert, who helmed the original.
A matrix of light rails flanks the proscenium at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre for some hi-tech atmospherics, but otherwise the boards looks like a Victorian stage, with shell footlights, and a wood trap doors to match the ones in Ludwig’s script, which is a stew of high-low brow comedy around a satire inside a parody of everything Sherlocky.
Holmes is planted in his oxblood leather chair, packing his pipe, erudite to a fault and deducing faster that he can say Elementary, my dear Watson. The mayhem starts when Sir Baskerville allegedly has had his throat torn open on his own estate and alleged solicitor brings the case to Holmes. Holmes is double booked on another case so dispatches the hapless Watson to the estate to solve the crime… or so we think. The estate caretakers are Mr. Barrymore (theater shade), lurching along with a zigzagging stroke and his wife who inverts her consonants, so even when she spills a secret no one can understand her.
Other residents of the estate Stapleton, an uber-fey butterfly collector, so affected that is idiotic to be offended- a stereotype of a stage stereotype typical of the period and in fact his feyness is part of the chicanery. Meanwhile, his sister Beryl is cloistered on the estate and terrified of the Baskerville hound. Meanwhile, she is being clumsily courted by the presumptive heir to the estate, gun slinging Texan Henry Baskerville.
Dehnert packs Ludwig’s dizzying plot (mostly useless to try to follow in detail) with stage mayhem and top drawer theatrics by a top shelf cast. Ludwig’s dialogue is rapid fire vaudevillian comique that this cast delivers with deft precision.
Ron Menzel is a finely tuned, semi-maniacal Holmes, an itchy elegance of a hunting dog in his GQ tweeds. As the young Dr. Watson, Henry Clarke makes the most of his slow uptake and his earnestness. Three actors pop in and out of a dozen characters with split second costume changes. Matt Zambrano somehow makes the unlikely Texan likeable and otherwise has great moments as Holmes tarted up parlor maid. Adam Green is the uber-correcting hotel clerk, with a hilarious lisping Italianate accent, that doesn’t prevent him from crisply rolling his ‘Rs. Between the concierge and Stapleton, Green is a trove of comic invention. Not to be outdone by the men (or the men in alleged drag), the unstoppable Crystal Finn portrays the biggest gallery of comic loons, from the hysterical ingénue Beryl to the marble-mouth Mrs. Barrymore
The thriller sound design by Joshua Horvath is matched with explosive lighting designs by Philip S. Rosenberg and Joel Shier and even more dynamic worked into the mystique of manual stagecraft of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s era. The costumes by Jess Goldstein just keep giving, from town and country couture to breakaway charwoman drag. And credit goes to dialogue coach Melanie Julian for refining the actor’s array of British, brogue and European dialects.
For those who are looking for holiday fare that doesn’t involve a Nutcracker or a Hallelujah, Baskerville is ever so droll funsies.