Sherlockians flock to ‘Baskerville’ at Arena, pronouncing it a bloody good time
By Rebecca Ritzel for The Washington Post
They are sort of like the Janeites, but wear brown plaid capes instead of empire-waist dresses and prefer solving puzzles with a glass of port in hand instead of discussing Austen over a cup of tea.
The Sherlockians, as fans of famed fictional detective Sherlock Holmes like to be called, are alive and well in Washington, and they’re hot on the trail of “Baskerville,” the new comedy by local playwright Ken Ludwig running at Arena Stage through Feb. 22. Last weekend, 40 members of the Red Circle, a 65-year-old gathering of area Sherlockians, turned out to see the play, which is loosely adapted from stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the reviews are in. After observing the onstage action with a keen eye and peering at the program through magnifying glasses, the Sherlockians came to the conclusion that Arena Stage had done it, and done it well.
“Everyone enjoyed it,” said Peter Blau, a Bethesda resident who has led the Red Circle since moving to the Washington area in 1970. “I thought the play was fascinating; it had a tremendous amount of energy, with a lot of humor.”
“Baskerville” stars Gregory Wooddell as a handsome Holmes who appears to have dropped in from a Colgate commercial, and Lucas Hall is a nearly as attractive but gullible Watson. The other 40-odd characters in the show are played by three multitasking actors. Of particular interest to the Sherlockians was Ludwig’s decision to make Sir Henry Baskerville, the heir to the haunted mansion, a gun-toting American from Texas. (He was, in the story, living in Canada at the time of his wealthy uncle’s untimely demise.)
“That doesn’t bother me a bit,” Blau said. “In our world of weird Sherlockians, we have a lot of fun with the stories.”
Opening night guests enjoy Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. (Courtesy Arena Stage)
The Red Circle was formed in 1949, when Washington Post columnist Bill Gold mentioned in his District Line column that a group of Sherlock fans would be gathering to discuss Conan Doyle stories. By the time Blau moved to town, however, things had petered out a bit. Blau, who said he thought “D.C. was too big a city not to have a Sherlockian society,” revived the group, which meets four times a year. (Ludwig was guest speaker at the Red Circle’s fall gathering.)
A semi-retired journalist and petroleum geologist, Blau became a Holmes fan growing up outside Boston. He listened to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock dramas on the radio, “because there wasn’t television, and there was nothing else to do.”
He read the novels, too, but has noticed over the years that the ranks of the Red Circle tend to swell whenever there’s a new Sherlock movie or television show. The sex appeal of British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, star of the recent BBC series, hasn’t hurt membership, either.
“I think it’s grand,” Blau said.
Many of the younger female fans have connected on their own not-so-private corner of the Internet. The Baker Street Babes attend conferences, record regular podcasts and provide an online outlet for reviews of Doyle adaptations. Kristina Manente, a Babe who lives in Frederick, Md., asked to review “Baskerville” for the Babes’ Web site, and Arena Stage was happy to provide press tickets.
Manente deemed the show a “delight,” particularly praising Michael Glenn’s portrayal of cowboy Sir Henry and Wooddell for using “all the traits of Holmes from the books, fleshing them out in a fun way that really fits with the rest of the play, but also doesn’t stray a ridiculous amount from the original stories.” But it was Wooddell’s coiffure that really impressed her: “He also has really great hair. Like, fantastic hair.”