Seeing Ken Ludwig's Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery in a small space is a treat. And the best reason to see this entertaining romp, through Feb. 4 at the Walnut Street Independence Studio on 3, is to watch five of Philadelphia's best actors having a blast.
You have two fine players holding down the central roles – in this case Ian Merrill Peakes as Sherlock Holmes and Bill Van Horn as Doctor Watson – and they are orbited by three others, vaulting among 35 ancillary characters.
The audience was in stitches at Sarah Gliko (Is there anything she cannot do? No, there is not.) shuffling among manifold serving maids, each with different accents and bosoms; plus Mrs. Barrymore, a flat theft of Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein (down to arch accent and offensive mole); plus Cartwright, a ragamuffin messenger boy. One moment Gliko is the fat lady at the opera, and fwoof, off with her cape, and she's a scullery maid.
Jered McLenigan is mostly Henry Baskerville, the American heir from "Texas" (said by Watson with an indescribable Londoner-trying-American pronunciation). Mostly a straight man, the endangered good guy, Henry gets a lot of laughs, especially at his attempts to pronounce Beryl, the woman he falls for (also Gliko). And Dan Hodge as everyone else is simply tremendous. He plays a Castilian Desk Clerk, spitting out comic ths; the Man with the Black Beard; Doctor Mortimer. He is startlingly good as Daisy, a shopkeeper's wife; and best of all as Stapleton, a lunatic lepidopterist.
The show is less about the story than about the show. No willful disbelief required; all walls down. The cast come in, shake audience members' hands, joke about the quick changes. Holmes seems impatient with one Gliko change: "What took you so long?" Gliko: "I'm no Dan Hodge."
"There is a feverish quality in this unlikely story that appeals to me," says Holmes, and it's feverish indeed. The Hound of the Baskervilles, which usually tops lists of readers' favorite Arthur Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes tales, is already feverish, a horror story grafted on a mystery, with a solution that marries reason with accident. To some extent, Ludwig is fighting himself in this play, tamping down his penchant for the madcap. He wants to be faithful to the original story while also sending it up; that makes act 1 exposition-heavy. As written, and as Peakes expertly plays him, we have an authoritative, witty Holmes, but not the glowering Aspergerian genius created by Benedict Cumberbatch for the tech-age BBC show.
Toward the end of Act 1, I sense an upswing, a loosening, and Act 2 picks up breakneck speed. Do not miss the much celebrated scene on the moor, when Watson, Henry, and another man negotiate the windy wilds. Do not miss Sherlock and Watson say, "Off to the train," take a huge step, and, bang! we're whisked away. Don't miss the busy McLenigan, Gliko, or Hodge. These five make our imaginations spark, and that's what a theater is for.