Sherlock Holmes barely matters to one of his most famous stories. The genius detective vanishes for much of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1902 novel The Hound Of The Baskervilles, leaving his fawning sidekick Watson alone to brave the spooky Devonshire country manor Baskerville Hall. So it’s Watson who investigates a hellish hound-beast and matters of a large inheritance, though of course Holmes, that legacy hog, takes all the credit.
Perhaps it’s justified that Holmes comes off like a prick in Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, Ken Ludwig’s new adaptation of the novel for Arena Stage. As the titular condescending sleuth, Gregory Wooddell treats Lucas Hall’s put-upon Watson like he’s the real hound, and does everything but toss him a treat for a job well done. Onstage, when Holmes is so often physically absent, this dynamic is even more apparent than on the page—or in the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring PBS series Sherlock, where the character is the enigmatic universe around which every London mystery revolves. Children, who seem to be Baskerville’s target audience, will wonder what all the fuss around that brilliant mind is about.
Mostly, the dynamic duo are stuck reacting to everyone else’s manic energies. The other three actors (Stanley Bahorek, Michael Glenn, and Jane Pfitsch) share the remaining 40-plus roles that aren’t Holmes or Watson. They dart on and off the stage to play the crusty police foil Lestrade, Cockney children, a gloomy Gothic couple straight out of Young Frankenstein, and too many others to keep straight. Ludwig’s adaptation moves past homage and parody and, under Amanda Dehnert’s hyperactive direction, lands squarely on spoof.
The resulting wink-winks are of the pandering sort that will always get laughs with the right audiences. An actor realizes another of her characters is being summoned and runs offstage for a quick change; another alters his voice with the swap of a hat; and there’s the expected drag- and accent-based humor. It’s funny at times, as the performers are deft impressionists with excellent comic timing, but Holmes would surely ask what Ludwig’s trying to hide with all this surface-level misdirection.
Presumably he’s not hiding the story, which hews to Doyle’s original with minor changes that mostly draw outsized dispositions around characters who previously had none. Sir Henry, the wealthy young Canadian heir to the Baskerville fortune, has become a Texan with a grating cowboy personality (through no fault of Glenn, who plays him). Did we American rubes really need our own transparent proxy into this timeless mystery? Doesn’t that undermine the basic appeal of Anglophilia: to escape from the colonies for a bit?
The production design is a better realization of Baskerville’s farcical tone, as props enter the bare stage from all directions for scene changes only to be swept away moments later. We know Watson is in a meadow when a dozen magnetic flowers drop from the rafters; when he and Sherlock go to Paddington Station, there’s a whistle and a puff of steam and they’re shuffling along on a make-believe choo-choo. It’s charming, use-your-imagination theater that will be good for kids, for whom “how did they do that?” can be the true mystery. The rest is just elementary.
1101 Sixth St. SW. $45-$110. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org