The trend of turning classic mysteries into small-cast stage romps reaches its nadir with Baskerville, A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, now in production at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3. Director Bill Van Horn and a hardworking cast of local actors do their best to focus Ken Ludwig’s frenetic adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, but the results are often as confusing as they are convivial.
Written in 1901, The Hound of the Baskervilles reintroduced Sherlock Holmes eight years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle supposedly killed him off in “The Final Problem.” Its popularity has endured ever since, spawning more than 50 theatrical, film, and radio adaptations. Ludwig’s adaptation, which premiered in Washington, D.C., in 2015, has been popular among local companies in recent seasons; this is the third area production in as many years.
Looking for clues
In keeping with his reputation as a farceur, Ludwig amps up the situational humor in Sir Arthur’s tale. His Holmes (Ian Merrill Peakes) comes across less as brilliant detective than persnickety fop. Though Peakes plays the part with a heavy five-o’clock shadow, this Sherlock has little of the gritty flavor attached to the character in other recent adaptations.
Dear Dr. Watson (Van Horn, doing yeoman’s work) functions as an unreliable narrator, floating red herrings and keeping the action hurtling forward at a breakneck pace.
A trio of actors — Dan Hodge, Sarah Gliko, and Jered McLenigan — essay the 40-odd remaining roles, changing costumes, accents, and genders at lightning speed. The art of differentiating one persona from another becomes a plot gag in and of itself, with comedy derived from Gliko’s presence as the sole female cast member. When a quick change requires her to shed a frumpy high-collared gown for a pageboy’s rags and patches, she earns a laugh by pointing out that her male colleagues don’t have to deal with bloomers and petticoats.
Van Horn’s production benefits from the Independence Studio’s intimacy. The room is reconfigured in a three-quarter thrust, with the action taking place all around the audience. The spare sets (by Scott Groh) serve as a blank canvas for lighting designer J. Dominic Chacon. With subtle shifts in color and brightness, he suggests everything from Holmes’s well-furnished London digs to the creepy, foreboding English countryside. Kayla Speedy’s costumes capture the period’s socioeconomic disparities, often more keenly than Ludwig’s text.
Therein lies the problem: In his attempt to make Baskerville funny, Ludwig glosses over what makes Conan Doyle’s works interesting and enduring. The carefully constructed plot (concerning the mysterious death of a wealthy baronet, the potential danger faced by his American heir, and the titular devilish dog) quickly becomes hard to follow, even for someone who knows the story. At a certain point, it turns into an afterthought, supplanted by an endless array of pranks and pratfalls.
The game cast members play the material for all it’s worth, but you can’t help longing for sharper character development, a greater sense of psychological terror, or a broader picture of turn-of-the-century London society. These elements permeate the source material; here, they’re largely absent.
Baskerville borrows from a playbook employed by a score of successful adaptations, including The 39 Steps, Around the World in 80 Days, and The Prisoner of Zenda. But even with Van Horn’s sharp eye and a caravan of talent, the whole somehow doesn’t equal the sum of its parts. In the end, it’s hard not to feel that Ludwig has turned grouse into thin gruel.