By Jordan Wright (Photo/Margot Schulman)
As I enjoy the second mountainously entertaining Ken Ludwig drawing-room comedy in less than a week, I am reminded that the Washington-based American playwright is anything but British. So how does he nail the stiff-upper-lip satire that evokes the stories of P. G. Wodehouse?
Ludwig draws on the schadenfreude of watching the posh get their comeuppance, a premise employed in many of his comedies, and one in which we can all delight.
In Arena Stage’s premiere of “Baskerville,” Ludwig concocts his fiction around Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, as he does in “The Game’s Afoot,” which is just about to complete its run at the Little Theatre of Alexandria.
For what sidekick Watson describes as “the greatest, most dangerous case in his remarkable career,” Holmes must uncover the murderer of Sir Hugo, the Lord of Baskerville. It is later revealed that a haunting creature, rumored to be “a great black beast,” roams the moors and rips out the throats of its victims, as in the tale’s inspiration, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
When the big-hearted Texan, Sir Henry, arrives to claim his rightful stake in the Devonshire estate — “Y’all got anything out here I can shoot?” — the plot gets even more curious.
Gregory Wooddell plays Holmes; Lucas Hall portrays Dr. Watson; and four other actors — Stanley Bahorek, Michael Glenn, Jane Pfitsch and Milo Tindale — play dozens of roles while dashing offstage lickety-split for changes of both costume and character. By the second act the audience is clued in to the madness of the quick change as hats, wigs and props are tossed off stage in full sight and characters and props burst forth from five trapdoors embedded in the stage floor.
As you may imagine, the crew is as crucial to the production’s helter-skelter pace as the actors. Neither group disappoints. Sound effects from storms to trains, lighting from vaudeville-period stage lights to spotlights in full view, and props, some of which descend from the rafters, all contribute to the haunting atmospherics, scenes changing as rapidly as the costumes and roles.
There is a night at the opera, the fog of the “gimpenmeyer” that swallows ponies, Sherlock’s bespoke study, the creepy castle and multiple scene and costume changes that require lightning-quick switches.
Jess Goldstein created the period costumes; Philip S. Rosenberg designed the dramatic lighting effects; Joshua Horvath and Raymond Nardelli created the sounds; and Gillian Lane-Plescia trained the actors in the multiple dialects. I noted Scottish, English, Texan, Cockney, Russian, German and Spanish.
Bahorek mines a lisping Spanish accent as a campy concierge in charge of a luxury hotel where there has been some, needless to say, very questionable activity. Bear in mind this was written before the Golden Globe-winning film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was released, which closely mirrors Ralph Fiennes role as the madcap concierge.
Director Amanda Dehnert, whose background is mainly in Shakespeare, does a bang-up job with the pacing, turning a complex production into a seemingly effortless, entirely hilarious, Brit-wit romp.
“Baskerville” runs through February 22 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SE, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.