Television viewers have their “Real Housewives.” iPod listeners can tune to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” Moviegoers have Judd Apatow’s latest flick. Readers of fine literature have been known to look forward to the next Janet Evanovich or Kinky Friedman novel.
Now thanks to Lenox’s Shakespeare & Company, theatergoers can now have their own guilty pleasure too, in Artistic Director Tony Simote’s zany, impertinent and totally out of control production of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” loosely based upon the famed Sherlock Holmes novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, now playing through September 4 in repertory in the company’s Founder’s Theatre.
The work of two British authors, Steven Cany and John Nicholson, this adaptation had its American premiere at Shakespeare & Co. several years ago in its smaller Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre where it was a major critical and audience success. It has now been restaged and further adapted for the larger Founder’s Theatre and certainly doesn’t seem any the worse for wear. If you’re a fan of physical slapstick comedy tinged with an intellectual playfulness, then this is one “dog” that is definitely for you.
The problem with writing this review, however, is that nearly every possible pun or play on words has already been usurped by the playwrights for their play, with some help I fear from Simotes and his trio of actors who play the nearly 20+ characters who populate the play. It’s also quite difficult to explain some of the physical humor, as it’s one of those “you have to see it to understand it” situations. Plus too much description would spoil the multiple surprises and that’s half the fun of the evening.
I could say that the other half of the fun is finally being able to leave the theater at the end of the evening but then I’d not only be telling a lie but I’d also be stooping as low for a laugh as thespians Jonathan Croy, Josh Aaron McCabe and Ryan Winkles do throughout the show. And I literally mean stooping, as the versatile McCabe does when playing a Scottish hermit or as they all do as their various characters try to maneuver the quicksand-like Grimpen Mire. There’s nothing these gentlemen will not do for a laugh, and for that all audiences should be grateful.
The plot retains the basic outline of the original Conan Doyle tale of the large and ominous canine that is systematically killing off the members of the Baskerville family while an escaped serial killer is prowling the moors. Rest assured that audiences don’t need to be familiar at all with the exploits of Sherlock Holmes to appreciate the production, which takes every opportunity to insert the most deliciously sophomoric sight gags or most ridiculous word play into the show.
McCabe gets the honor of doing most of the heavy lifting of the show (and I don’t just mean when he’s required to move some scenery on or off the stage). He not only gets to play Holmes complete with cape and deerstalker hat, but thanks to some amazingly quick costume changes, gets to portray Jack Stapleton, the neighbor of the Baskervilles, and John Barrymore, the long-time butler on the Baskerville estate, as well as, in drag, the exotic Stapleton sister, Camille, complete with snapping paper fans, and Mrs. Barrymore, not to mention the aforementioned hermit. How he manages to remember which character he is playing at any one time or where his next exit or entrance will be is beyond me but he does so, without missing a beat.
Jonathan Croy is quite amusing as the bumbling, officious Watson, always ready to shoot his pistol at a moment’s notice and on constant lookout for a bit of food, which his consistently being denied him throughout the play. Croy, now in his 26th season at Shakespeare & Co., serves as the anchor for this production as his dim but amiable Watson is not only narrator but is in virtually every scene. It’s a tribute to his ability to say that he can be just as insane and crazy as his younger costars.
Ryan Winkles plays the dashing Sir Henry Baskerville, the targeted next victim of the dreaded hound, with a bouncy youthful insouciance while exhibiting a stubborn contempt as a carriage driver and later an oafish superiority as a country bumpkin selling a “live lamb in a sack” (don’t ask!) He’s also especially playful individually depicting the array of Baskerville family portraits hanging in the great hall and as Sir Henry falling under the spell of the sultry Miss Stapleton, who herself is not all that she seems.
Govane Lohbauer’s costume designs are marvelous creations of layering and velcro to easily accommodate the multitude of off-stage changes, especially for McCabe who seems to be in more elaborate wigs, dresses and pants than any of the other actors. As a treat to the audience, Simotes and his crew ultimately do treat us to a full view of one of McCabe’s split-second changes from his South American seductress into the fully-frocked English detectives, right before our eyes.
Alexander Sovronsky has written an original score for this Founders’ Theatre version of the comedy, which adds to the sense of menace and urgency felt by the characters though in all honesty I was too absorbed in the well-choreographed nonsense on stage to really give it the attention it is due. There’s also a choreographer credited–company veteran Kristin Wold–who must have been just as busy backstage as up front, coordinating all the entrances, costume changes, scenery movements that obviously had to be carefully coordinated. Especially on stage, chaos must be carefully planned.
It seems that the cast has accommodated itself to the larger requirements of the Founders’ Theatre, but they are helped throughout by a very busy and frequently visible crew of stage managers and assistant stage managers, who certainly deserve a special shout out for their yeoman’s work: Diane Healy, Sean Gray, Hope Rose Kelly and Wesley Rice. Yes, they do get their own well-deserved curtain call.
For those who were either too busy laughing during the first act or shaking their heads in disbelief, or doing both at the same time, not to worry. The actors kindly agree to quickly review the events of the first act at the top of the second–when they offer be sure to say ‘yes.’ If for some reason you are brought back to reality sometime during intermission, their recap will certainly get you into the right mood immediately.
Of course, bitter cynical theater writer that I am, I often wonder about those moments on stage when the actors supposedly “accidentally” break each other up. I am always suspect of such moments, and indeed a few did occur the afternoon I caught the production. But in this case such moments came few and far between and at such odd times, that I bought them completely. While McCabe, Croy, Winkles and Simotes may have had me fooled, all I wanted was more. A theatergoer couldn’t have a better “guilty pleasure.”