Forget March Madness. In Connecticut right now, March is Mystery Month. Up at Hartford Stage through March 25, Agatha Christie’s beloved sleuth Hercule Poirot is solving The Murder on the Orient Express, while over in Norwalk until March 18, The 39 Steps, a comedy-mystery based on an espionage thriller, is playing at Music Theatre of Connecticut.
And at Long Wharf Theatre, Baskerville, Ken Ludwig’s adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mystery The Hound of the Baskervilles, runs through March 25. There seems to be statewide agreement that we need fun to divert us from the weather while still getting us out to the theater. And it’s no secret that mystery has draw.
While all three shows are played as comedies, Baskerville — like The 39 Steps and unlike Orient Express — makes a comic virtue of a small cast playing a wide variety of roles, often with extremely quick changes. Ludwig has taken the main gimmick of The 39 Steps and run even farther with it. World-famous detective Sherlock Holmes is played by Alex Moggridge and his erstwhile assistant Dr. Watson is played by Daniel Pearce. All the other characters — 30-some roles — are played by Kelly Hutchinson, Christopher Livingston, and Brian Owen. Several of the roles are so fleeting as to be little more than a costume, a voice, and a mannerism, while others help to complicate the plot or create the mystery writer’s standard plot device, the red herring.
Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous fictional characters around. In all the treatments of Holmes — from the detective stories first published in the Victorian era to the many filmed and televised versions of those tales — certain features generally remain: his fierce attention to minute details, his cerebral sang-froid, his arrogance, his detachment. Moggridge, who bears a bit of a resemblance, albeit with a beard, to Nicol Williams as Holmes in The Seven-Percent Solution, delivers an engaging Holmes, able to switch from contemplative withdrawal to manic action in seconds. As Watson, who mainly tries to keep up, Daniel Pearce is likable and, in his desire for friends and praise, rather vulnerable.
The Hound of the Baskervilles first appeared as a serialized novel, with plenty of cliffhanger moments, though its plot rambles a bit, bringing in numerous extras, such as the street urchins that Holmes sometimes employs to gather information, and Inspector Lestrade (Livingston), a Cockney constable with a chip on his shoulder about Holmes’ methods and rate of success. For much of the story, Watson is on the scene at the Baskerville estate while Holmes remains in London, giving the doctor a chance to come into his own somewhat. With location changes suggested by a few key props, Baskerville easily jumps back and forth between the two. The design of Long Wharf’s theater makes it particularly conducive to open staging, where part of the joke is that an entire set can be suggested by a door that needs only spin so that we can see the action on either side of it.
The case itself is one of the more uncanny in the Holmes canon, involving the death by fright of Sir Charles Baskerville on the lonely moors of Dartmoor near the Baskerville estate. The culprit, the locals believe, is the Hound of the Baskervilles, a demon-dog roaming the moors to wreak vengeance for the heartless depredations of a Baskerville ancestor. A concerned neighbor seeks Holmes’ help in order to warn the new heir, Sir Henry Baskerville (also Livingston). Holmes is skeptical of the supernatural and wants to know all he can about any humans who would benefit from Baskerville’s death.
Surprisingly, Sir Henry is a Texan. His accent kicks off a free-for-all of funny voices and accents, with biggest laughs going to Hutchinson as a sinister German housekeeper by way of Cloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein, full of amusing v’s for w’s and wice wersa. Also on hand are a seemingly benign neighbor, Stapleton, played by Owen as a daffy butterfly collector running about in a blonde wig with a net, and his more staid sister (Hutchinson), who tries to warn Sir Henry as well, only to find that they are smitten with each other.
Wigs (by Jason P. Hayes) are a key part of this production. A literally show-stopping moment in the Sunday evening show I saw occurred when, in the midst of a particularly vigorous pirouette, Owen lost his wig and then snatched it in mid-air. It drew a round of applause and gave Owen a great deadpan moment to don his hairpiece with full dignity. In his fourth go-round in this play, Owen knows how to milk its battery of characters for every possible giggle. It’s so much a clown’s show, in fact, that Holmes and Watson are at something of a disadvantage. Yet they manage to join in the fun as well in certain key turns.
More faithful to the plot than most adaptations of this oft-filmed tale, Ludwig’s play condenses the novel while also smirking at its quirks. Most of the laughs are visual rather than verbal, as Ludwig apes the manner of British skit comedy while rarely concocting a truly witty line. Director Brendon Fox orchestrates the quick action and fast turnovers, letting his cast play to the audience, and conjuring — rather niftily — just enough ambiance for each pinpoint scene. No scene outstays its welcome and the solution of the mystery, and even its outcome, are part of the hilarity.
Baskerville delivers a creditable whodunit while sending up mystery fiction, and creates a consistent theatrical world while playing fast and loose with the suspension of disbelief that theater generally relies on. Key to Conan Doyle’s original mystery is disguise, dissemblance, and essentially a death by special effects. Baskerville takes those basics and makes a zany romp of them, clean as a hound’s tooth.
Baskerville runs at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., through March 25. Click here for tickets and more information.