Review: Hounded (with laughs) by ‘Baskerville’

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 In Philadelphia Theatre Company's production of 'Baskerville,

In Philadelphia Theatre Company's production of 'Baskerville," from left, Henry Clarke as Dr. Watson, Matt Zambrano as a policeman and Ron Menzel as Sherlock Holmes. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

Plenty of mystery surrounds the blood-thirsty hound plaguing the Baskerville family, but one thing we know for sure: He’s a dogged creature. He follows stage companies around tenaciously — this time, striking at Philadelphia Theatre Company, whose entertaining, high-camp production of “Baskerville” chews up the Sherlock Holmes story as if it were a mere doggie bone.

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote “The Hound of the Baskervilles” in 1902 and that pooch has been chomping people on the moors ever since — each time, being discovered by Conan Doyle’s intrepid detective Holmes (and by his bromantic sidekick Dr. Watson, I presume).

The most recent adaptation, by Ken Ludwig (“Crazy for You” and many others) premiered earlier this year at Washington’s Arena Stage and Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, its original co-producers. Although Conan Doyle is not even cited in the playbill’s official title page of credits, “Baskerville” leaves most of his story’s convoluted details intact while turning the novel into a stage spoof — it calls for five actors, three of them in something like a zillion rolls. Plus, there’s lots of theatrical sleight of hand. A sign at the entrance to the auditorium of the stage company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre says it all: “Please be advised, this production contains the use of strobe lights, fog, gunshots, special effects.”

It also boasts a sparkling cast fully up to the wacky task, with Ron Menzel playing Holmes — a character whose tedious know-it-all persona can be tough to take. (Even in the hands of Benedict Cumberbatch on PBS.) To his great credit, Menzel invests Holmes with a hint of humor, just enough to make him less insufferable and more acceptable. (And spiffy, too – check out his handsome blue suit with a pinkish-violet vest, part of Jess Goldstein’s costume design.)

The boyish Henry Clarke makes a peppy Dr. Watson and three facile, funny actors — Adam Green, Matt Zambrano and Crystal Finn — portray a multitude of characters, switching sometimes within seconds. Amanda Denhert, who directed the original productions in Washington and Princeton with a different cast, loads the show with running jokes: surprise flowers set the scene in seconds, a train station is a flash of steam repeatedly popping from the stage floor and into Dr. Watson’s face, hats fly here and there but are never caught outright.

Another current stage version of the story – this one with three actors — was effectively done last season by Lantern Theater Company. Ludwig’s “Baskerville,” subtitled “A Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” sticks closer to the plot of the original and has a more formal structure, always skewing the story for laughs. This is true for the little shtick as much as the substantive changes Ludwig makes in his script when, for instance, he turns Conan Doyle’s Canadian heir to the Baskerville mansion into a sporty Texan.

Ludwig, who’s used Sherlock before as the basis for a play, made his most visible mark on the stage with a lunatic farce called “Lend Me a Tenor,” which has been ubiquitous. (Never seen it? Sit tight, it will come to a theater near you.) With “Baskerville,” he’s managed to write a farce that doesn’t have any of the typical trappings — no slamming doors or people falling out of windows and surprising each other as they run through rooms. But it does have the rollicking tone of farce and, in its actors’ frequent character changes, the soul.

It also has a quirk — the tale takes a long time to set up, so the first half’s sometimes stilted. It seems to announce itself as a comedy version of the classic rather than simply being one. The second half, though, is smooth sailing, and becomes funnier and funnier. Still, you’d do well to take one thing seriously: Stay off the moors after sunset.

“Baskerville” runs through Dec. 27 at the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets. 215-985-0420 or philatheatreco.org

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