By Andrew J. Friedenthal, American-Statesman freelance arts critic
Although I am by no means a Sherlock Holmes expert, my father is a devoted Baker Street Irregular. As such, I have been exposed to more than a few variations on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s consulting detective over the years. Ken Ludwig’s play, ‘Baskerville, A Sherlock Holmes Mystery’ (playing at Austin Playhouse through Dec. 18th), is by far the silliest.
Ludwig is a renowned, award-winning playwright with a long history of hit comedies on and off Broadway, including ‘Lend Me a Tenor’ and ‘Crazy For You.’ His oeuvre includes a wide variety of adaptations of literary classics. With ‘Baskerville,’ first produced in 2015, he has turned to Sherlock Holmes, which proves to be an interesting choice for him.
The serious plots and sardonic humor of Doyle are somewhat incongruous with the madcap antics that are Ludwig’s stock-in-trade. As such, there seems to be two plays going on at the same time; the relatively serious investigation by Sherlock Holmes and sidekick Dr. John Watson into a mysterious murder, alongside three other actors who comically encompass several dozen other characters throughout the course of the show’s two acts. The two tones never quite meld, and the text doesn’t ever really decide what it wants to be.
Austin Playhouse’s production of ‘Baskerville’ does its level best to make sense of this muddled play, and they succeed admirably in creating a fun, atmospheric piece of comedy/mystery. Director Don Toner keeps the show moving at a rapid clip, shifting from location to location and rotating the three multi-role actors on and off the stage in fanciful ways (although some of those scene change demands do unfortunately require long blackout pauses).
The three actors in question—Stephen Mercantile, Zac Thomas, and Marie Rose Fahlgren (labeled in the program as “Actor One,” “Actor Two,” and “Actor Three,” respectively)—do a wonderful job metamorphosing from character to character, even though the text demands most of those characters act as overly broad stereotypes with a variety of funny accents. They make the most out of the humor, and their performances are delightful to watch.
Holmes and Watson—played by Jason Newman and J. Ben Wolfe, respectively—are much more subdued and realistic, carrying the momentum of the plot. Wolfe’s Watson is charming, smart, and capable, belying the inept bumbler that Doyle adaptations often cast him as. Newman, as Holmes, is a study in contrasts; cold and businesslike to most, but warm, gentle, and even funny with Watson. Their interaction is the highlight of the production, though they ultimately share surprisingly few scenes together.
Ludwig’s ‘Baskerville, A Sherlock Holmes Mystery’ is somewhat like a light version of a Mel Brooks parody (indeed, multiple jokes appear directly stolen from Brooks’ films) that doesn’t fully commit to being full satire. Austin Playhouse’s production, though, manages to emphasize the humanity of the main characters to create an amusing diversion that taps into the more humorous side of Sherlock Holmes.