Ken Ludwig’s hysterical ‘Baskervilles’ is great fun at McCarter Theatre

Lucas Hall as John Watson and Gregory Wooddell as Sherlock Holmes in Ken Ludwig's hysterical version of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" at McCarter Theatre in Princeton through March 29. (Photo: Margot Shulman)
Lucas Hall as John Watson (left) and Gregory Wooddell as Sherlock Holmes in Ken Ludwig’s hysterical “Baskervilles” at McCarter Theatre. (Photo: Margot Shulman)

Do you like Sherlock Holmes? Did you enjoy
“The 39 Steps?” Do you like to laugh — a lot — in the theater?

Then you will love Ken Ludwig’s “Baskervilles” now playing at the McCarter Theatre complex in Princeton through March 29. You loved “Moon Over Buffalo” and “Lend Me a Tenor,” right? He wrote those.

And bring the kids. I’ve never seen such a mix of adults and so many young theatergoers — tweens, high schoolers, college students and young adults — as I did last night during the opening at the nearly full 1,100-seat Matthews Theatre space. It’s a co-production with the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, where it was presented earlier this year to raves.

The Arthur Conan Doyle crime story about a giant supernatural dog stalking male members of the wealthy Baskerville family on the Devonshire moors in the late 1890s marked — in print — the consulting detective’s” reappearance after he fell to his “death” at the Reichenbach Falls during a struggle with arch-enemy Professor Moriarty.

Surprise! He’s back! And Ludwig welcomes him with open arms for his Holmes (Gregory Wooddell) jokes, laughs, and is highly animated as he investigates mysterious West Country deaths with the help of Dr. Watson (Lucas Hall) and three other actors (Stanley Bahorek, Michael Glenn, and Jane Pfitsch) brilliantly playing multiple characters. I dare you to count them all.

“The 39 Steps” (scheduled to reopen on April Fool’s Day at the Union Square Theatre in NYC) is an homage to its creator. It recreates the entire 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film on stage with four actors. Yep. Just four actors.

Ludwig isn’t tied so tightly to his source material. And director Amanda Dehnert, set designer Daniel Ousting, lighting designer Phillip S. Rosenberg and the rest of the creative team have lots of fun with theatrical devices and even “mistakes,” which I assume are scripted. (Like the broken spy glass, right?)

The tech team and the actors know they’re presenting a play. We know they know that. So why not take some liberties; the kind you can’t possibly take during a conventional Sherlock Holmes stage rendering.

Top, from left, Michael Glenn, Lucas Hall,  Stanley Bahorek and, below, Jane Pfitsch, in Kne Ludwig's "Baskervilles" through Marcy 29 at McCarter Theatre in Princeton. (Photo by Margot Shulman)
Top, from left, Michael Glenn, Lucas Hall, Stanley Bahorek and, below, Jane Pfitsch, in Ken Ludwig’s “Baskervilles” through Marcy 29 at McCarter Theatre in Princeton. (Photo by Margot Shulman

Sans curtain, the audience sees a black box-like set with nearly 100 ellipsoidal lights on scaffolding pointing center stage so they create a performing space with  two sides and ceiling plus a scrim backdrop used for projections.  Brechtian like (if Bertolt Brecht had a sense of humor) is how we are seeing this  play.

Holmes’ sitting room at 221B Baker St. is represented by a single chair. When another seat is needed, a chair on castors is pushed from the wings out onto the stage and grabbed by the actor. When Dr. Watson heads outside, a cap and coat are tossed on stage by unseen hands.  A garden is needed, so a dozen weighted flowers fall from above to form an instant upright patch downstage. A spy glass pops up out of nowhere through one of three — or were there four (?)— trap doors.

Costume changes are done with lightning speed. (I would so love to watch this show again from backstage.) Jane Pfitsch appears as a Baker Street Irregular street urchin. But when the dialogue turns to the beautiful, young lady Beryl Stapleton, she “suddenly realizes” she has to change costume and dashes off stage to return seconds later in colorful frock and blonde curls.

Scenes change in an instant via perfectly executed light cues and sound effects. At each mention of Grimpen Mire, a treacherous bog of death, a 5-second atonal crescendo blasts through the theater. As Holmes and Watson leave on a search, they walk one way in the dark, then jump in the air, turning, landing in the light having arrived at their destination.

It is as theatrical as the theater can get. It’s the kind of experience that makes the theater so alive and exciting. At one point, when Wooddell seemingly needs to compose himself as an actor, he wipes his hand downward over his face changing backing into character to understanding  peels of laughter from young actors sitting in front of me.

In other words, it’s one heck of a fun night at the theater and not to be missed. A family show without being billed as one.

To learn more about Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, click here.

For more info and tickets for “The 39 Steps,” click here.

To learn more about “Baskervilles” and purchase tickets, click here.

Ken Ludwig will be in Princeton’s MarketFair Mall’s Barnes & Noble store from noon to 1:30 Sunday (March 15) and then move to the Matthews Theatre stage from 3:45 to 4:45 for “A Dialogue on Drama” following that afternoon’s matinee. Click here to learn more.