Dark clouds create a gloomy backdrop at Arena Stage as a match illuminates a face, its owner intent on smoking the cigar that’s pressed between his lips.
Suddenly, he hears a noise. A skeletal, ghostly-looking beast chases after him. And just like that, the audience bids adieu to one of the 40-plus characters in the world premiere of Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery.
Only five actors make up the cast of this dynamic show, which is directed by Amanda Dehnert. The players switch roles and pick up accents as easily as the show’s sparse props, while they follow clues and attempt to unravel the mystery of a deadly, giant hound that is said to stalk the moors of Devonshire.
The playwright, Washingtonian Ken Ludwig, says the pared-down set helps the actors transition quickly from scene to scene, as they move from the moors of Devonshire to Sherlock Holmes’ residence at 221B Baker Street to train stations to Baskerville Hall.
“Many plays we all go to are set in a single setting, like a living room or a bedroom or a suite in the hotel,” he says. “This had to go everywhere.”
That meant the set had to be sparse. “Indicate a train with a gust of steam and indicate 221B Baker Street with his beautiful leather chair,” Ludwig says.
Once he realized that scarcity would be a key component of the production, Ludwig says he started having fun with the concept of relying on a trio of actors (Stanley Bahorek, Michael Glenn and Jane Pfitsch) to portray dozens of characters.
“This is not the kind of play I typically write,” he says. Usually, he notes, his plays do not involve actors switching characters. But, one of his favorite playwrights does lean on that device.
A self-described “big Shakespeare guy,” Ludwig recently authored a book titled How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare. Random House published the guide this past summer.
“So I’m used to reading Shakespeare plays and seeing them and of course, they’re filled with doubling,” Ludwig says. “Even if you’ve got 10 actors, they’re usually playing about 25 or 30 parts, so doubling is really a fun aspect of theater that I love.”
This was his first foray into doubling, and Ludwig says he enjoyed the challenge: “I got a big kick out of writing it with lots and lots of doubling, because I had to think to myself ‘well, let’s see. If this actor goes off stage, but I want to use that actor in the next scene as a different character, I have to leave enough time for a quick costume change, to believably take a breath and get into the next scene,’ so it was a little bit puzzle-like.”
The play is filled with funny moments, many of which are driven by those sparse props and quick character changes. In one scene, an umbrella descends from the ceiling to shield Sherlock Holmes (Gregory Wooddell) and John Watson (Lucas Hall) from the London rain. In another, an actor races back on stage only to realize that, in the haste of switching costumes, he’s forgotten to scrub the bright lipstick from his mouth. He quickly removes it, letting the giggling audience in on the joke.
The Tony Award-winning playwright (Broadway’s Lend Me a Tenor) says his Jewish identity deeply influences his writing. “The Jews have such great senses of humor,” he says. “There wasn’t a time we’d have a family gathering… that the house wasn’t just filled with laughter, with just good comments and good jokes and good spirit and good heart.”
This stage adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, part of the Sherlock Holmes series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, contains no references to Judaism. That should come as no surprise, as neither Doyle nor his famous detective character are Jewish. But, Doyle did mention Jewish people in other books, and the references were not necessarily positive.
In a 2012 article for Tablet Magazine, Liel Leibovitz writes that, “Holmes — and, by extension, his author — is not above the occasional stroke of anti-Semitism.”
In The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, Holmes says of a man: “He is in the hands of the Jews, and may at any moment be sold up and his racing stables seized by his creditors.”
In Ludwig’s adaptation of Baskerville, one line does deliver a jab to a religious community — but a different religious community is the butt of that joke. In Act I, Holmes declares that a dog is “scratching at my front door with the zeal of a Christian.”
But don’t read too much into it. Ludwig says “zeal of a Christian” wasn’t intended as a response to Doyle’s comments about Jews, it “just sounds like something that Sherlock Holmes would say.”
A co-production with the McCarter Theatre Center of Princeton, N.J., Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery will be at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington, through Feb. 22. Ticket information is available by calling 202-488-3300 and visiting www.arenastage.org.