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Baskerville — McCarter Theatre

untitled (54)Patrick Barlow turned to movies and the master of cinematic suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, when he formulated his humorous romp of a thriller, “The 39 Steps,” a current staple in regional theaters everywhere.

Cunning farceur Ken Ludwig taps a different source, Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of popular literature’s most iconic detective, Sherlock Holmes, as he casts his deerstalker hat into the few-actors-many-characters comic mystery arena with “Baskerville,” a funny, inventive, entertaining take on Holmes’s first adventure after Conan Doyle, responding to a public outcry, restored him to life, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,”

Ludwig is at the top of his game in terms of setting hilarious jokes, puns, and surprises while retaining a palpable semblance of genuine suspense in relating Conan Doyle’s tale of brutal murders on the moors. “Baskerville” director Amanda Dehnert manages the McCarter Theatre production’s pace well, leaving room for exposition and serious moments while cooking up some marvelous sight gags, vaudeville bits, and physical hijinks as she guides her quintet of players to a series of vivid characterizations.

On Dehnert’s stage, props, hats, and other paraphernalia fly from the wings into a waiting character’s usually sure hands. Chairs, desks, tables, and other elements of Daniel Ostling’s set come rolling into position as if pushed by someone just out of sight at the fringes of the stage. Flowers rain like darts from the flies to create meadows and heaths. Elevators efficiently clear some of the furniture, and cast, from the stage when scenes are completed. Stanley Bahorek, who two seasons ago made an enduring impression as Bill Gates in “Nerds,” is a comic whirlwind, being staid and obsessive as one character and morphing into a toothy, manic Jerry Lewis while playing another. The drag that was so popular in “The 39 Steps” finds its way to “Baskerville,” with Bahorek and Michael Glenn playing maturely ladylike proprietors of a respectable Victorian shop Holmes frequents to the women’s flirtatious glee. Playing about a dozen characters, including two principals, Jane Pfitsch changes gender so often, she’s probably confused about which dressing room to enter by the end of the show.

On every level, McCarter’s “Baskerville” is a delight. It amuses grandly, it sparks our curiosity at critical instances, it generates a raft of well-earned laughs, and it never veers from being a smart and crisply done ball of fun.

Dehnert’s production is more in keeping with Maria Aitken’s original staging of “The 39 Steps” than the latter show’s dozens of regional knockoffs. Just as Aitken kept the darkness in Richard Hannay’s quest to foil a Nazi spy ring, Dehnert makes sure we remain focused on the case Sherlock Holmes is trying to solve. Comedy is constant and predominant, but wonder about what Holmes will find and how he will find it gets its due.

Gregory Wooddell is an excellent Holmes, precise and unflappable while enjoying the various stratagems and disguises he employs to catch an insidious murderer. Ludwig gives Holmes all the familiar trappings Conan Doyle made into legend — a literal and admiring assistant in Lucas Hall’s Watson, a simultaneously doting and deprecating landlady in Pfitsch’s Mrs. Hudson, a damsel under duress, and two Baker Street irregulars, urchins who carry Holmes’s messages and do his bidding. As usual, Holmes is familiar with the British train schedules and can worm information out of a London cabbie or two. Holmesian tradition is preserved with a wink from Ludwig who can make comic hay from his lead character’s habits and foibles while paying admiring homage to them.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” is a gruesome tale built on a Baskerville family legend from two centuries before Conan Doyle’s story begins. A wicked member of a noble family, Sir Hugo, who has debauched and killed a young village girl, is beset by a large, ferocious animal with sulfurous red eyes while running from his crime on the foggy moors near the family estate in remote Dartmoor, Devonshire. His throat is torn, and the look on the man’s face in death is one of agony and horror, as if he suffered a tremendous fright just before succumbing.

An almost exact event occurs to the more honorable sitting Baskerville baron of 1896, Sir Charles Baskerville, as he stands, smoking peacefully, while waiting to meet someone at about the spot where his unlucky ancestor met his vengeful retributive fate.

Alarmed by the unfortunate coincidence, a Baskerville neighbor, Dr. Mortimer, arrives at 221B Baker Street, Marylebone, London to consult with the great Sherlock Holmes, who listens to his story from a comfortable leather wing chair with Watson at his side and Mrs. Hudson hovering before she is sent to make tea. Ludwig has already given Holmes an opening to show off his brilliance at deduction by having him glean several key facts about the doctor based on a walking stick he left at Baker Street during a previous call when Holmes was not present. This display of talent comes directly from Conan Doyle’s story, but Ludwig has crafted it adroitly for “Baskerville’s” purposes and made it a charmingly amusing introduction to Holmes and his methods.

NealBoxIn spite of Dartmoor being a famous prison town, and the beast that killed Sir Charles remaining on the loose, Mortimer fears less for himself and others in his community than he does for the heir to the Baskerville estate, the new baron, Henry Baskerville, an American who is coming from Texas, a Ludwig invention, to claim his inheritance. Mortimer is concerned the Baskerville patriarchs are subject to a curse that stems from Sir Hugo’s long-ago perfidy and that Henry will fall victim to it. “Baskerville” being a mystery, Bahorek’s Mortimer is solemn and serious as he tells of Sir Charles’s death and the Baskerville saga. “Baskerville” being a comedy, Michael Glenn gives Henry a thick LBJ drawl that clashes humorously with the well-spoken British accents Wooddell’s Holmes and the other characters, including a slew played by Glenn, affect.

Holmes is particularly intrigued by the creature alleged to be responsible for causing so much deadly havoc. Its description is daunting to the point of stretching credulity, especially when Baskerville maintains it is definitely a large canine that is terrorizing the rough but picturesque terrain adjacent of Dartmoor. Wooddell lets you see Holmes is skeptical that an animal, particularly a dog, is responsible for such carnage, a circumstance that makes Holmes more interested  in learning who or what is harming the Baskervilles.

Holmes enlists watchful eyes to see if Mortimer is followed as he heads towards the London hotel where he is to meet Henry and escort him to Dartmoor. Once Henry arrives there in the company of Watson, he is greeted by comically suspicious sorts such as the Barrymores, a husband and wife who serve a butler, housekeeper, and caretakers of the Baskerville mansion and lands, The woman is austere and has a decided eye tic and limp, sort of a comic cross between Mrs. Danvers and Richard III.  The man is laconic and lugubrious, like a staid British Lurch who looks more like a portly Reginald Owen than Frankenstein. The couple immediately strikes you as a pair that would not be partial to their foreign employer and would not blanch at committing an atrocity, murder included. Ludwig and Dehnert have created the Barrymores to be ominously ghastly, and Pfitsch and Bahorek add to the portrait with their cold looks, droll disdain, unimpressed reactions, and Grand Guignol demeanors.

The other Dartmoor inhabitants that matter are the effetely eccentric naturalist, Jack Stapleton, who lives with his siste,r Beryl, in a cottage on a small estate near the Baskerville’s. Stapleton, thought dotty and easily distracted by the butterflies he is trying to catch, lets Watson know a convict names Selden has escaped from Dartmoor Prison and has been spotted on the moors at night. He also expresses interest in the whereabouts and talents of Sherlock Holmes and warns Watson about a particularly tricky spot on the moors called Grimpen Mire, a quicksand-like bog into which man and beast have disappeared without a trace. Every time Stapleton mentions Grimpen Mire, an ominous chord plays and Bahorek, who plays Stapleton, screams in reflexive horror.

Beryl Stapleton is a fetching woman who can speak on several subject and relate entertaining experiences from her past. She catches the eye and affection of all who meet her, and Pfitsch gives Beryl a friendly but down-to-earth air that conveys the attraction men would have towards her.

Watson has been sent to Dartmoor ahead of Holmes who claims to have business to do in London. Ludwig is shrewd in having Wooddell’s Holmes allude to a number of Conan Doyle stories by mentioning the speckled band and the King of Moravia while explaining his absence from the Baskerville case.

Of courses, Holmes is wilier than he lets on. While Watson thinks he’s busy with other commissions, Holmes is surreptitiously observing all the doings of Dartmoor and laying traps for Sir Charles’s murderer. Ludwig and Dehnert makes Holmes’s reappearance a happy surprise while paying more homage to Conan Doyle who gave Holmes a penchant for disguises.

The way Dehnert maintains the balance between comedy and suspense is consistently impressive. Through a mélange of accents, some a thick as Dartmoor’s pea soup fogs, and a host of delightfully oversized characterizations, the story and danger to the Baskerville family comes through. Dehnert may exaggerate the way the Barrymores look and move, giving the idea that they are sinister in a Dickensian way, but she also gives Mrs. Barrymore the chance to plead for her brother, the escaped convict for whom she leaves food and who hides in the moors. Ludwig has clever fun with the convict’s red herring status in Conan Doyle’s story.

“Baskerville’s” cast of five aids mightily in the production’s success.

Gregory Wooddell is a young, urbane Holmes yet more traditional is his playing of the character than is the current wont, as practiced by Robert Downey, Jr. and Jonny Lee Miller.

Wooddell’s is a neat meticulous Holmes who enjoys showing off his mental superiority and who keeps all in his control even as he indulges in the special “tobacco” he sends his messengers to purchase. This Holmes takes pride in his ingenuity and loves dazzling Watson with his latest display of espionage or deduction.

Lucas Hall’s portrayal of Watson is also traditional. Watson is an able and earnest assistant, diligent in managing the investigation in Dartmoor and more serious and by-the-book than Holmes when dealing with police work or with other humans.

Hall forgoes any of the fuddy-duddy traits connected with Watson because of Nigel Bruce and uses his youthfulness to be an active and agile help when called on to thwart threats to Henry, who he is in Dartmoor to advise and protect.

Stanley Bahorek can’t help but display his comic gifts. In “Nerds,” “Little Me,” and “Baskerville,” Bahorek arrives on stages and indicates an irrepressible urge to make you laugh. The marvel is how well he follows through on his intention. Bahorek clowns with abandon but never makes you feel as if you’re being manipulated, even when he flashes his toothy grin or sports an expression that says, “Wait till see this one.”

That’s because Bahorek backs up his signaling of a joke or comic bit by delivering a line in an assured way that would have garnered yuks even if he’s approached his material by acting deadpan.

Just as Wooddell is an old-school Holmes, Bahorek is an old-school comedian with the timing and panache of a Red Skelton.

The good news is Bahorek can also portray a serious character. When he makes his first “Baskerville” entrance as Dr. Mortimer, he is aptly cordial, businesslike, and a bit befuddled, especially when he claims the walking stick Holmes has made a display of using to predict Mortimer’s character.

When we meet him a Jack Stapleton, he is comic in aspect and in a neurotic aspect fitting to the character. He also conveys the notion of an absent-minded professor, a dedicated scholar who is too busy pursuing knowledge to notice much about the world around him. Bahorek has Stapleton look intent upon catching a rare butterfly for his collection, then, in the best Tim Conway manner, misses his prey and gets a laugh with the awkward, jerky way he handled his net. Again, the beauty of Bahorek’s work is you can see it coming and still delight in the subtlety with which this deft comedian procures his actual laugh.

Bahorek has serious moments are both Mortimer and Stapleton. In them he shows his versatility. His comic persona is buried under the purpose of the given scene, and Bahorek shows he can be as effective with drama and suspense as he is with comedy. As Barrymore, he holds a fine line between characterization and portraying a man who has weighty, perhaps criminal, things on his mind. The character is both ominous and funny.

Michael Glenn captures the Texas bluster and spirit of Henry Baskerville, who is not only interested in walking the acres he owns but in the affection of Beryl Stapleton, who looms as an unexpectedly important figure in Ludwig’s play.

Glenn, like Bahorek and Jane Pfitsch, is a deft chameleon, changing characters with the speed of a syllable, or, as happens on occasion, the drop of a beard. The actors makes everyone he portrays distinct and entertaining.

Jane Pfitsch gets to play the congenially put-upon Mrs. Hudson, the demure Beryl Stapleton, and the intimidating Mrs. Stapleton along with a parade of men and women she keeps so separate, you have to look twice to makes sure it’s Pfitsch you’re seeing.

Dehnert’s excellent ensemble keeps Ludwig’s lark of a play sailing smoothly and amusingly. The McCarter production never flags or fails to give you something to watch. Comedy is king, but Dehnert and company make it so you fear occasionally for characters, such as when Watson is hit on the head with a large boulder wielded by Selden or when Dehnert and Ludwig foreshadow the large, vicious beast that killed Sir Charles and terrorizes the Devonshire landscape even more than the perilous Glimpen Mire.

Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting, especially when he represents the ‘hound’ is shadow, adds to the grimness and hazard of the Dartmoor setting. The howls of the beast, various gun shots, and several storms sound especially perilous thanks to the design of Joshua Horvath and Ray Nadelli. Daniel Ostling’s set can change from a bleak terrain or a flower-strewn copse in a matter of seconds, especially when those plants come pummeling in or Rosenberg’s lighting alters the mood. Jess Goldstein joins the ranks of the traditional with his handsome costumes. Holmes, Watson, and other men looked especially well turned-out. Goldstein is to be congratulated on the quick-change outfits that always looked fully draped as Bahorek, Glenn, and Pfitsch donned them so feverishly.

“Baskerville” runs through Sunday, March 29, in the Matthews Theatre at McCarter Theatre, University Place and College Road, in Princeton, N.J. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. on Saturday, and 2 p.m. on Sunday. An additional performance is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 29. Tickets range from $92.50 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 609-258-ARTS (609-258-2787) or by visiting www.mccarter.org.

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