The holiday season is gearing up for all of us, including the performing arts organizations that are gearing up to present their holiday shows. Often these shows are retreads of Dickens or some version of the Nativity, or sometimes we get an “inspirational family drama” that could've been lifted in its entirety from Lifetime or the Hallmark channel. You can’t really judge the companies too harshly: It’s the season; it’s tradition; it’s what a lot of people seem to want this time of year.
Philadelphia Theatre Company is trying something a little different this season: They are presenting Baskerville, an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most familiar Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles. This is a staging of the McCarter Theatre/Arena Stage production, with the original director, Amanda Dehnert, but a new cast. Adaptor Ken Ludwig intended Baskerville to be a comic thriller, and Dehnert’s astute direction provides more than a hint of homage to Mel Brooks.
Taking Sherlock to our American bosom
It’s amazing, though perhaps not surprising, that such a quintessentially British character as Holmes should be so popular and such a widespread inspiration in America. We see his legacy (penetrating intelligence and an idiosyncratic personality) in such diverse characters as Perry Mason, Nero Wolfe, Columbo, and Mr. Spock, up to today’s Adrian Monk and Richard Castle.
The matter of his portrayal, however, is more firmly set. Whether your favorite portrayal is by Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch, or Robert Downey Jr., the ghost of Basil Rathbone hovers above them all, making the character instantly recognizable no matter who plays the part. Here actor Ron Menzel channels his best Rathbone, helping to lend a cozy familiarity to the proceedings — like having a piece of pumpkin pie.
Don’t take this as a criticism of Menzel’s work, or of the play in general. My great love of pumpkin pie is not diminished by my familiarity with it. In fact, that’s what the majority of people coming to a holiday show want: cozy familiarity — why do you think the Ballet’s Nutcracker does so well every year for decades on end? Baskerville is like a holiday trifle, made with excellent ingredients whipped up by an expert chef (or your grandmother).
An icon and its memes
Because Homes is such an iconic, familiar character, he is easily subject to parody, in this case very gentle and loving parody. Dehnert and her excellent cast clearly intended not to skewer an icon, but to have a bit of fun with the character and its memes — and fun they had. While some of the bits of comedic business became a bit repetitive, joviality was the order of the night.
Is Baskerville great art? No, of course not. Is it a lightweight entertainment, well crafted, that’ll make you laugh and put you in a good mood for the holiday season? That’s a yes.
For Dan Rottenberg's review, click here.