Sherlock Holmes: The Game’s Afoot – Once Again

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Sherlock Holmes, Baskerville

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

 I don’t know how many ways stage, screen and television can present Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s wily 1890s British detective. There has been a core of movies, color, black and white, sound and silent about the deductive genius over the years. He has worked in the 1890s battling Professor Moriarty and in the 1940s fighting the evil Nazis. Today he is the star of a TV series in two different countries at the same time, and in two dazzling, and highly profitable, movies starring Robert Downey Jr. in 2009 and 2011. On the current NBC series, Elementary, he is even working with a female Dr. Watson, actress Lucy Lui.

But the McCarter Theater, in Princeton, N.J., has indeed found another way – Holmes is now a hit in a very eclectic play that is half drama and half comedy, a set designer’s Disney World and all enjoyment.

Baskerville, by Ken Ludwig, that opened in Princeton last week, is an eclectic play with, it seems, eight million gimmicks in the set to add extra astonishment to the story. Ludwig has taken the deep drama out of the story The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of the premier Holmes tales and a play staged all over the world, and frequently, and injected a lot of good natured humor into it.

Set designer Daniel Ostling has made glorious use of everything you can think of to keep this Holmes mystery, er, comedy, rolling along at near breakneck speed. There is a garden of bright yellow flowers that drops down from the theater’s ceiling and gets “planted” on the stage. There are windows that drop from the top of the stage with portraits that turn into real people behind them. There are umbrellas and parasols that fly through the air, two trap doors that open and close faster than EZ pass gates on turnpikes, terrible and awfully loud Hounds, frightening memories and many two and three faced people scurrying from one end of the set to the other.

The playful director, Amanda Dehnert, has not only added a touch of wit to the story, but a touch of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, too. The play is a two hour romp for the brilliant Holmes and his buddy, Dr. Watson, who leave downtown London and head for the dangerous moors in the British countryside – having no fear of the howling hounds that surround the Baskervilles.

The character of Holmes has always succeeded on the stage, even though the theater cannot provide the scenery and computerization of the movies. William Gillette wrote the first Holmes theater piece, Sherlock Holmes, staged in 1899. The show then toured across the U.S. There have been over 200 movies and more than 35 actors have portrayed the well-known sleuth. There was a Holmes TV series in the U.S. in 1954 and several TV series and radio series in England over the years.

The plot of the latest, Baskerville, starts simply and becomes complicated. A beastly hound killed the head of the Baskerville family years ago on the moors and was never captured. Now, it appears, the animal is going after the rest of his family. Something must be done, so the mercurial Holmes s summoned from Baker Street.

He and Watson go the moors, meet the members of the Baskerville family, their eerie friends and servants and set about trying to solve the rather tricky case.

The play is very good but it has some dreadfully dull moments. The middle of the first act is rather slow and its very last scene is just not possible and everybody knows it. Holmes has been taken out of the play for too long by Ludwig. He is gone for long minutes and then, presto, reappears suddenly. The great detective story needs its great detective, and he is often not there.

These are minor criticisms, though. The play is yet another new look at the world’s greatest detective and his trusty side kick, Watson.

The dynamic detective duo of Holmes and Watson are played marvelously by Gregory Wooddell (Holmes) ad Lucas Hall (Watson). Others in the fine cast are Stanley Bahorek as the crafty Stapleton, Michael Glenn as Henry Baskerville, and Jane Pfitsch as Beryl Stapleton.

This Holmes is the invention of actor Wooddell, who makes him his own man. He is a far cry from both Basil Rathbone, in the old movies, and Robert Downey in the new ones. He is no Benedict Cumberbatch, from the British series, either. He is charming, loud, strong, forceful and, at the same time, a Prince of mirth and deductive thinking. Watson, like Holmes, is young and dynamic, always on the lookout for culprits and always, always, not as smart as Holmes (who is?). The pair has given the 1890s Holmes story a nice new feel.

Holmes fans will love this play because the game is afoot with the detectives, Watson and Holmes pitted against demented evildoers yet again. People who do not know a lot about Holmes will enjoy it, too, because it is a mystery hoot in which guns are blazing, hounds are howling at the top of their lungs, characters are frightened and the night is darker and more menacing than ever.

It is good. It is funny. It is elementary.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the McCarter Theater and the Arena Stage. Sets: Daniel Ostling, Costumes: Jess Goldstein, Lighting: Philip S. Rosenberg, Sound: Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli, Wig Design: Leah J. Loukes, Fight Director: Thomas Schall. The play is directed by Amanda Dehnert (Davd York is director of production). It runs through March 29.

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