Ken Ludwig is the crown king of writing modern farcical plays. He and the Cleveland Play House seem to have a “thing” for each other. Ludwig has had world premiere productions of his scripts A Comedy of Tenors (2015), The Games Afoot (2011) and Leading Ladies (2004) on CPH stages.
Ludwig is a play writing machine. The author of 18 plays and 3 musicals, he has had 6 shows on Broadway. His stage creations have been performed in more than 30 countries and have been translated into over 20 languages.
Success came quickly to Ludwig. In 1989, his first Broadway play, Lend Me a Tenor, was bannered as “one of the two great farces by a living writer.” It went on to win three Tony Awards. His second play, Crazy for You, ran for over five years and won every important award for Best Musical.
The likes of Carol Burnett, Lynn Redgrave, Frank Langella, Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche have starred in his writings.
Baskerville is based on the book, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” the third of the crime novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which featured Sherlock Holmes. The book has been listed in the top 200 in the BBC’s “The Best Read Poll” and as the top Holmes novel by the Sherlockian scholars.
Like the book, Baskerville takes place in both London and Devonshire, England in the late 1890s. The tale starts when Dr. James Mortimer asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate the death of his friend, Sir Charles Baskerville, who had been killed at his Devonshire estate, Baskerville Hall. There is fear that Sir Charles’s nephew, and his sole heir, a Texan who is about to assume ownership of the estate, Sir Henry Baskerville, will meet the same fate.
This fear is based on the “family” curse, which dates back to the English Civil War, when Hugo Baskerville supposedly sold his soul to the devil for help in abducting a woman. Hugo was reportedly killed by a giant dog dubbed “The hound of Baskerville.” Since that time, there have been reported howling and the evidence of giant footprints, credited to the massive creature.
Though retaining the traditional Sherlock Holmes observations of wonder, Baskerville is written as extended farce, a murderously funny adventure. As is the usual case, much to the delight of the Conan Doyle fans, the play is filled with Holmesisms such as, “That was a curious incident,” "Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?,” “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbably, must be the truth,” and, of course, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
To find their ingenious killer, Holmes and Watson must brave the desolate moors before the family curse dooms its newest heir. And, of course, there must be a twist at the end, so our heroes can solve yet another case!
CPH’s production, creatively directed by Brendon Fox, leaps over all the farcical barriers to create mayhem. Sets zoom on and off stage, costumes morph from being one thing to being another, lighting and sound effects create mystery and intrigue. The audience is taken on a silly overly dramatic journey as the intrepid investigators escape a dizzying web of clues, silly accents, disguises, and deceit as five actors portray more than 40 characters.
The first act plodded along, with actors sometimes giving the feeling that they were not sure where the laughs were going to take place, so they paused and waited to see. In the second act, all the plugs were pulled and giggling and fun resulted.
Though not looking like the traditional tall, thin image created by the movies and television of Sherlock Holmes, Rafael Untalan, created a believable character. Jacob James looked like the stereotypical Doctor Watson and created a nicely textured interpretation. The rest of the cast, Brian Owen, Evan Alexander Smith, and Nisi Sturgis were outstanding in morphing from character to character. Though sometimes overdone accents got in the way of understanding, the intent and purpose of each character was clear.
Kudos to Candace Brown, Janel Moore, Christina Spencer, the off-stage dressers, for pulling off the numerous costume changes. They well deserved their curtain call.
Timothy R. Mackabee’s scenic design, Lex Liang’s costumes, Peter Maradudin’s lighting, Victoria Deiorio’s original music and sound design all helped to create the right aesthetic images.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Is Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, a great play? No! Is it even a very good play? Probably not. What it is is a play that will delight many. Especially those who like to solve mysteries, who are enamored with farcical delights, and enjoy a cast who is having a lark playing lots of characters and changing costumes a great deal. And, no spoiler alert here, the butler didn’t do it!
Baskerville runs through February 12, 2017, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.