Murder. Mayhem. A mysterious moor. A homicidal hellhound. Creaky old houses and spooky house servants. These gothic archetypes may not be the most obvious recipe for a comedy, but as whipped together by the team at Everyman Theatre, Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery is an uproariously funny confection of diversion, silliness, and a great time — a perfect Holmes-for-the-holiday farce.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, moves from high Edwardian romantic mystery (with all the gothic trappings of Brontëan novels) into a lightning-paced slapstick in the ever-capable hands of beloved DC playwright Ken Ludwig, maybe America’s foremost comedic writer for the stage.
Ludwig’s Baskerville had its world premiere at Arena Stage in 2015 in a co-production with McCarter Theatre Center in New Jersey. It’s more than a fitting homecoming to bring this play back to the region — with Ludwig in attendance on opening night — and the whole hardworking and talented cast, creative team, and crew of this production all living and working in the DMV.
The play is afoot! Let’s try to untangle this knot quickly. In this OG “curious incident of the dog in the nighttime,” Sherlock and Watson are asked to investigate the mysterious death of the late Sir Charles Baskerville. The only clues for an unnatural death were the horrified grimace on his face and the incredibly large puppy pawprints all around his body. Sherlock — preoccupied with another famous case (“A Scandal in Bohemia”) — sends Watson to accompany Dr. Mortimer (the friend of the late Baron, played by Bruce Randolph Nelson) and the new heir — Sir Henry Baskerville (Drew Kopas) — to investigate the mystery and the myth of the infamous hound. Red herrings, false starts, shady characters, a budding romance, and perfidious identities lead to a lot of mix-ups before the case is resolved.
The twisty and turny plot is beside the point. Either you already know and love the Sherlock stories (and there is no mystery to solve) or this is all new to you — the more fun then! — but it’s not so much a Whodunit as a Howmuchfun madcap mystery.
In her Everyman debut, former Artistic Director of the Cleveland Play House Laura Kepley dizzyingly directs the comedy — somehow organizing the chaos while also letting loose the reins. Her vision seems to be Sir Arthur Conan Boyle by way of Monty Python absurdity (silly walks included) with several dashes of Mel Brooks’ broad burlesque (we are only missing an “It’s good to be the king!” line).
Danny Gavigan plays arguably the world’s most famous fictional detective Sherlock as haughty and more than a bit unhinged (he has several tantrums), while Tony Nam plays Dr. Watson as the straight man, our only link to rationality in an utterly mad world populated with absolutely bonkers characters. As Sherlock is missing for much of the play, Watson must put on the metaphorical deerstalker cap, gather clues, and keep his wits, and it all seems elementary to Nam — who is, by turns stoic, inquisitive, and exasperated.
The rest of the cast — Megan Anderson, Drew Kopas, and Bruce Randolph Nelson — play over 40 different characters with 69 quick changes occurring backstage (and sometimes on). From servants to opera singers, shopkeepers and shepherdesses, villains and even damsels in distress, the cast discard their glue-on mustaches and clip-on beards and don new wigs, capes, and accents: from various London social classes as well as a Scottish brogue, a Gaelic trill, a Castilian lisp, a High German growl with “v”/”w” switch, and even a Texan drawl. Once in the moors, Kopas gets a little break by mostly playing one character, the affable and trigger-happy Texan heir Henry Baskerville, a true fish-out-of-water type, while Anderson and Nelson pair off, first as the creepy housekeepers, Mr. and Mrs. Barrymore, and then as the ill-matched siblings, the unbalanced naturalist Jack Stapleton and his enchanting sister Beryl. What brilliant and broad performances from this game team of incredibly gifted comedic actors!
In one dizzying scene as Holmes and Watson visit various London hotels searching for clues, Nelson switches from one of the key secondary characters, the staid Dr. Mortimer, to a flirty and hard-of-hearing shopkeeper’s wife to a Castilian concierge to a Dickensian street urchin and back to Dr. Mortimer in less than four minutes. (Anderson and Kopas also dash around in two or three guises each during this same breakneck scene, including Anderson pulling off a great Maggie Simpson impression as a pacifier-chomping baby in a pram). At times, the farce seems an exercise in, well, exercise as the cast members engage in silly walks, climb up the set, faint (at least a dozen times), and literally chase each other around in circles.
David Burdick, the play’s costume designer; Gary Logan, dialect coach; Denise O’Brien, wig designer; and Lewis Shaw, fight and intimacy coordinator, all deserve accolades for their talents and work in aiding the small cast but many characters of this play. How many hidden snaps are popped off, wigs switched out, mustaches glued on, and voices, postures, and mannerisms are all altered in mere seconds?
When the action moves to the countryside and we shift into the comedic gothic mode, Paige Hathaway’s set design, Harold F. Burgess II’s lighting, Kelly Colburn’s projections, Town Olufolabi’s sound design, and the puppet hound designed by Dan Jones become more prominent. The set first appears as Sherlock’s home — a large slate-blue paneled sitting room with curios of curiosities, but each panel pulls out to become beds, opera seats, hidden trap doors, and so on, while the bookshelves house the necessary quick props — guns, knives, dollhouses, umbrellas, and more. Together, Burgess’ eerie blue-tinged lighting and Olufolabi’s creaky, creepy soundtrack of Halloween noises make the large manor and accompanying moors even too haunted for the likes of a Heathcliff or Cathy. Every mention of the horse-swallowing bog Grimpen Mire is accompanied by cued suspense music (dun dun DUH!), and Colburn’s projections on three screens create the busy London train station, the facade of the haunted house, the idyllic countryside, a blood-red moon, the shadow of the hound, and a corridor of family portraits (look closely and you will see What We Do in the Shadows’ vampires amongst Renaissance paintings of dour-looking ancestors). And keeping all the lighting and sound cues, dramatic entrances and demented exits, and numerous demises on time are Cat Wallis (stage manager) and Tiffany Ko and Jalon Payton (assistant stage managers).
Both the closing exposition, while necessary to explain the demented Scooby Doo mystery, and the final scene back at the opera house seem to drag on a bit, until a new crime finds our detective duo ready for their next case. Ludwig has written several Holmes adaptations, and this critic would love to see Everyman produce more of these side-splitting capers. Quick, Watson… a sequel!
Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery plays through January 1, 2023 (New Year’s Day), at Everyman Theatre – 315 W. Fayette St., Baltimore, MD. Tickets are $29–$73, with Pay-What-You-Choose, Theatre Nights for Teens, Midweek Matinees, Childcare Matinees, and Cast Conversation performances with special pricing and perks options. To purchase, call the box office at (410) 752-2208 or go online.
COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged, but not required for attendance. While proof of vaccination is not required, we strongly recommend up-to-date vaccines. For more information, see Everyman Theatre’s health and safety page.
Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery
By Ken Ludwig
Megan Anderson: Actress One
Danny Gavigan: Sherlock Holmes
Drew Kopas: Actor Two
Tony Nam: Doctor Watson
Bruce Randolph Nelson: Actor One
ARTISTIC & CREATIVE TEAM
Laura Kepley: Director
Paige Hathaway: Set Design
David Burdick: Costume Design
Harold F. Burgess II: Lighting Design
Tosin Olufolabi: Sound Design
Kelly Colburn: Projection Design
Denise O’Brien: Wig Design
Lewis Shaw: Fights & Intimacy
Gary Logan: Dialects
Cat Wallis: Stage Manager