Hound of the Baskervilles a Howling Success at Shakespeare & Company

Never have so few done so much, so well, with so little

By: - Sep 28, 2009

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Shakespeare & Company presents The Hound of the Baskervilles by Steven Canny and John Nicholson, Set Designer - Jim Youngerman, Lighting Designer - Steve Ball, Costume Designer - Govane Lohbauer, Sound Designer - Michael Pfeiffer, Composer - Alexander Sovronsky, Stage Manager - Holly Hennighausen, Directed by Tony Simotes, Production Sponsored by Ann and Joe Gallo and Frank and Ashley O'Keefe. Cast: Jonathan Croy, Man #1; Josh Aaron McCabe, Man #2; Ryan Winkles, Man #3; plus Yvonne Cone, Kadie Midlam, Sam Parrott, Ethan Weiss as the Servants. September 18 - November 8, 2009 at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA. About two hours with one intermission.

Tony Simotes has a hit on his hands. He has unleashed The Hound of the Baskervilles on the Berkshires in one of the most original spoofs that has come down Route 7 in decades. That's not just one critic's opinion, but a consensus. A little further down in this review you will read the reaction of high school senior Caleb Hiliadis, as he begins his journey towards a journalism career. He agrees that this reworking of the classic mystery by two Englishmen, Steve Canny and John Nicholson is great fun. The production has been deftly directed by Simotes and brilliantly executed by Jonathan Croy as Watson, Josh Aaron McCabe as Holmes (and a household staff,) and Ryan Winkles as Sir Henry (and just about everyone else.)

This is the first production that Simotes has directed in his new position as the Artistic Director of Shakespeare & Company.

(Founding Artistic Director Tina Packer in now in Boston preparing to play Martha in the Publick Theatre's production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf. See our story about her trials and tribulations here.)

The program carefully notes that she "had absolutely nothing to do with this production." It's all in good fun.

The Fall slot at Shakespeare & Company is usually reserved for classic Sherlock Holmes, but this year called for something slightly different, something that Simotes picked. Unfortunately, the play was actually picked by Packer, but Simotes quickly made it his own.

Part Monty Python, partly Marx Brothers, and totally screwy, the actors pull it off with a rolling doorway, some furniture pieces, a trunk of costumes, props and wigs and little else.  Three guys play a total of 16 characters ranging from a dwarf to a Spanish Señorita twirling folding fans that snap, crackle and pop.

Never before have so few done so much with so little.

A few weeks ago, when watching the actors rehearse, it became clear that this was a special play, one which would appeal to a wide audience. Finding a script that works for someone who is 18 and holds the attention of someone who is 80 is always a challenge. But this play is so fast moving, so funny on so many levels, that it has that kind of broad appeal. Here is the verdict of our young colleague Caleb Hiliadis:

"Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of his most beloved works, and because of its multi-layered plot, there is a little bit of something for everyone. Until now the story has been a serious and suspenseful mystery albeit one with a dark, chiaroscuro glow. Instead at Shakespeare and Company the classic is shown in a more humorous light. The laughs just kept coming virtually nonstop for the duration of the whole show.

"All the while we were also bombarded by constant costume changes.  Intense build-ups resolved abruptly.  Humorous yet often dry interjections added greatly to the humor. The actors cleverly utilized everything on the stage to quickly transform the landscape as they dashed from scene to scene. Pieces of the set that had one moment pertained to a specific and tangible setting suddenly became completely different objects in the next, as in a lucid dream. Thus the stage was always in a perpetual and chaotic state of flux. Seemingly improvising, the actors make the simple props change into other objects that often drove the audience to more laughter.

"Even with constant giggling coming from throughout the hall, some of the funniest moments were impromptu. Perhaps the energy of a sold out full house combined with a lively crowd resulted in laughter at unexpected moments, and the actors couldn't help but laugh at their own absurdity. The audience became embroiled in the mayhem at points, something that the actors encouraged and seemed to thrive on.

"The size of the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre is perfect for this type of actor-audience interaction. Even though the line "Elementary, my dear Watson" was only dropped on one occasion, it was appropriately placed. While this is a show for a wide variety of audiences, some of the themes and phrases may not be appropriate for young children.

"As they settle into their demanding roles, the actors comfort and proficiency levels will increase to make this already fine production gleam.  The company should be encouraged to add some improvisation to each performance, whether in the script or not. Then we can wonder if the seemingly ad lib parts were really accidental or carefully pre-planned. Another mystery for Sherlock Holmes - and the audience - to solve.

"This is a show for all ages, and not to be missed."

The plot of the mystery is unusual in that the character of Dr. Watson is the central one. Jonathan Croy is remarkable in that role, for he is the straight man to the other two actors, Josh Aaron McCabe who plays the great detective and and Ryan Winkles who plays Sir Henry Baskerville.  Winkles natural exuberance allows him to play his role to the hilt, yet never over the top. His timing and characterizations are simply a wonder to behold. McCabe is no slouch either, except when playing the dwarf. That was one of the funniest scenes in the show, except for...for...

Trying to pick the best scene is like deciding which piece of chocolate is going to taste best out of a new box. And describing all the funny happenings would take some of the fun out of it for you when you go to see it.

This is one of those plays that, if you like to laugh, you simply can't go wrong. It's a fun evening of theater.

In the original book Holmes is rarely involved until half way through. Although he becomes aware of the threat of a spectral hound killing all the Baskerville heirs, he sends Watson off to investigate instead, asking that he be kept posted.

Sir Henry and Watson travel to the spooky moors, tramping around the muck and mire of the Baskerville estate. They meet a strange assortment of servants and village people. Few of them are who they claim to be. The conflicting information befuddles Watson, but not Holmes. In time, they dispatch the threat to Sir Henry Baskerville and in the final dénouement all, or almost all, is explained.

The rapid fire scenery and costume changes are the result of split second timing by the stage manager, Molly Hennigshausen and the four actors who play the servants, Yvonne Close,  Kadie Midlam, Sam Parrott and Ethan Weiss.

The audience clearly loves this show, and it proves once again that Shakespeare & Company has an uncanny ability to find and nurture our funny bone. How such a fine group of serious classic actors developed the ability to turn on a dime and become the masters of comedy as well is my own mystery to solve. It has to be in their training.

In the summer, when the Performance Intern Program is up and running it is amazing how creative and funny the free Preludes are before the Founder's Theatre performances. And in reaching out to the community through the schools, there is no doubt that pratfalls are as much a part of the curriculum as is performance, pronunciation and projecting the voice. Yes, Shakespeare & Company still makes theatre more than fun, they make it downright hilarious. The Hound of the Baskervilles is the funniest Sherlock Holmes mystery that you will ever see.

Larry Murray has spent most of his adult life in the arts and entertainment business and resides in the Berkshires.

Caleb Hiliadis is a senior at Wahconah Regional High School and aspires to be a journalist. We hope to recommend him for a Fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.