Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery

★★★ ½

Through Sunday, Apr. 28

Raleigh Little Theatre, Raleigh

Have you ever seen Patrick Barlow’s theatrical version of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps? Apparently, playwright Ken Ludwig has. Though he doesn’t name-check Barlow among the antique literary influences in the interviews included with Baskerville‘s script, Ludwig’s 2015 stage adaptation of the famous Sherlock Holmes tale is clearly patterned on Barlow’s hellzapoppin’ 2005 play.

Both are comic send-ups of famous film mysteries of yesteryear, and in both, much of the comedy stems from an absurdly small number of actors—two in Steps, three in Baskerville—juggling dozens of supporting roles in an endless cascade of sudden, convenient entrances and exits. Manic stage crews fly set pieces in and out of scenes. Costume designer Jenny Mitchell and a quartet of dressers (Danielle Welch, Heather Carithers, Katie Huffman and Sarah Spagnoli) are actually brought out for bows for their split-second changes. It makes for a breathless, funny, and improbably cinematic romp through a venerable melodrama.

To these elements, director Jeremy Skidmore gives a gender-bending twist by casting women in the two leads: local legend Mary Rowland as Holmes and the talented Laurel Ullman as the detective’s faithful amanuensis, Dr. Watson. It’s hardly Rowland’s first rodeo; long-toothed theatergoers still recall her striking work in a 1990s production of Hamlet. Still, a more discerning director might have coaxed a more conspicuously British take from both actors.

The flexible Gus Allen takes on eight roles, including an endangered Baskerville heir with a corn-fed Texas accent. He’s clearly used to multi-cast productions; he’s as memorable as he was in, you guessed it, last season’s The 39 Steps. Kirsten Ehlert steps up to the plate in the female parts, and utility infielder Tony Hefner ably acquits his fourteen characters, including the sinister (well, sort of) Stapleton. Brendan Reilly’s portentous sound cues and Liz Droessler’s droll lighting and projections insert addled grace notes to a serviceable soufflé that takes another thriller through a now-familiar spin.