‘Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery’ charges into Arena Stage

By Celia Wren for The Washington Post

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1902 novella “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is known for its twisty plot involving Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. Watson. The tale also is known for its gothic settings (the treacherous moors, the gloomy Baskerville Hall) and its ringing line “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

But the wide-eyed scullery maid at 221B Baker Street, Daisy? Or the unctuous Castilian desk clerk who bewails protocol lapses in a clue-riddled London hotel? Not so much.
(L to R): Lucas Hall, Jane Pfitsch and Gregory Wooddell in rehearsal for Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, which runs at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater January 16-February 22, 2015. (Matt Pilsner/Matt Pilsner)

But that may be about to change. Daisy and the desk clerk are two of the dozens of personalities stepping into the spotlight — often humorously and fleetingly — in Ken Ludwig’s adaptation “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” now in its world-premiere run, directed by Amanda Dehnert, at Arena Stage.

Gregory Wooddell and Lucas Hall play Holmes and Watson, respectively. Three other actors — Stanley Bahorek, Michael Glenn and Jane Pfitsch — tackle what may be the larger challenge. The three play all of the more than 40 supporting characters — old and young, male and female, urban and rural — from all parts of the social spectrum.

The stream of transformations can be manic, say the actors, who spoke recently by phone from New Jersey, where they were rehearsing at the McCarter Theatre Center (co-producer of the show) before heading to Washington.

“It’s like doing ‘Saturday Night Live’ or even ‘Monty Python’ — the wackiness, the loonyness of running on as one character and running off and changing in two seconds, and then running back on as a completely different character,” says Glenn, whose roles include Daisy, Scotland Yard Inspector Lestrade and Sir Henry Baskerville, who inherits a Devonshire estate seemingly cursed by a supernatural canine.

“The whole show is one long, manic and very precise dance,” says Pfitsch, who channels the Baskerville Hall housekeeper and many other major and minor figures.

The role-juggling conceit was rooted in pragmatism but grew to become a valentine to theatricality. Ludwig (“Lend Me a Tenor,” “Shakespeare in Hollywood”), speaking from his home office in Washington, says that when it came to dramatizing the legend, he wanted to fuse real suspense with humor — doing for theater what he says the “Indiana Jones” franchise did for film. “You’re not making fun of the genre, [but] at the same time, there’s a lot of laughs, because they come out of the tension,” the playwright says.

Ludwig knew that some role-doubling would be necessary, given budget realities and the number of characters in Doyle’s original. Strategizing, he decided that the actors playing Holmes and Watson would handle only those roles. After all, in the Doyle canon, Holmes and Watson “really form a nucleus,” he says, centering all the story lines while “all these other characters swirl around them.”

Ludwig recalls that as he mulled how to distribute the other characters among a few actors, he got on a roll. “I thought, ‘This is kind of fun! It really adds to the theatricality of the piece.’ ”

He fleshed out minor figures (such as the desk clerk) and invented figures to help conjure up the settings. For example, when a scene involves a chase on a London street, “I wanted to people London,” he says. “I wanted the whole world to come alive.”

The playwright says he took inspiration from the international stage hit “The 39 Steps,” which also blends humor and suspense and features frantically doubling actors. Another spark, he says, came from another small-cast play that used role-doubling to terrific effect: Fiasco Theater’s “Cymbeline,” which was produced at the Folger Theatre last year.

Bahorek, Glenn and Pfitsch say working on the play has been a blast. “It’s an actor’s playground, or a buffet,” says Bahorek, who plays, among other characters, the Castilian desk clerk. (“He’s the most fun for me,” the actor says.)

That doesn’t mean the task is without its challenges. For example, Glenn says that at one point, while playing two drastically different characters, he has to have a conversation with himself. At a rehearsal at Arena Stage this month, the actor was rushing on and off the tape-marked rehearsal space, transforming from Daisy to Sir Henry to a coughing tobacconist with the aid of such props as a smock and broad-brimmed hat. Bahorek and Pfitsch were pulling off comparable transformations.

The scenes require “an immense amount of precision and exactness and memory. It’s like choreography . . . like being a dancer,” says Pfitsch, whose credits include a New York production of “The 39 Steps” and the latest Broadway incarnation of “Cabaret.” The precision needs to be rigorous, Pfitsch says, but the action also must incorporate joy and spontaneity. “If you are only executing the movements,” she says, “it’s not going to be funny.”

The costumes, designed by Jess Goldstein, help with the persona-shuffling, but ultimately, says director Dehnert, the wardrobe only supports what the actors are doing. Because the “Baskerville” characters are all quirky, she adds, the actors have been able to delineate characters with physicality, accents, vocal tics and the like.

And as for convincing the audience? No need. They’ll be in on the joke. “Baskerville,” Pfitsch says, celebrates a dramatic tradition that allows “the audience to participate imaginatively” in the stage magic. “With most of the things we are doing,” she says, “you will see how it is done, but it will be delightful.”

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