Madcap Hound of the Baskervilles Due at Shakespeare & Company

Holmes and Watson Deliver Comedy and Cross Dressing in Lenox

By: - Sep 18, 2009

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Earlier this week we had the privilege of attending a rehearsal of Act II of The Hound of the Baskervilles at  Shakespeare & Company. (S&Co) In a candid and freewheeling discussion that followed, the actors and director talked about both the challenges of rehearsing this new work for its American premiere, and the happy surprises they have found along the way. The Hound of the Baskervilles plays in the Elayne P. Bernstein theatre from September 18 through November 8.

Tina Packer saw the zany Steve Canny and John Nicholson adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's story while it was in the West End (London's Broadway). She found it similar in some ways to the similarly condensed Compleat Works of Shakespeare which Artistic Director Tony Simotes and actor Jonathan Croy did earlier at S&Co. She clearly saw it as a natural fit for the company, though beyond that Packer insists that "I have absolutely nothing to do with this production."

Perhaps that is because this is one she has left for the "boys." They are taking one beloved story which really needs no elaboration (let's be honest), and found three actors to play sixteen characters, given them a few fake beards, plenty of opportunities for cross-dressing and permission to use bad British accents, for an uproariously funny and totally un-serious takeoff of the murder mystery genre.

Directed by Simotes, there are differences between the British original and the US version which places more emphasis on the book that is its source. As actor Ryan Winkles points out, "There's more of the flavor of Holmes." The UK version uses English Music Hall and Pantomime elements extensively, but these sorts of Brit humor could prove a mystery to Americans unfamiliar with that country's theatre traditions. So things have been somewhat adjusted. "They've left in the 1935 mystery movie references which are more familiar, and safer to play fast and loose with," he continued.

Around the S&Co campus, Hound of the Baskervilles is being referred to as "Monty Python meets Sherlock Holmes". "That's not a bad image," Winkles continued, "after all, those Monty Python guys are pretty smart, and very funny. In this parody, we want to have that sort of wit and sharpness."

It's not as silly as The Three Stooges, or as slapstick as Abbott and Costello, and in fact, there is a slice of realism that runs through the entire piece. "It isn't one thing, one style. The friendship between Sir Henry, who I play,  and Watson is real," according to Josh McCabe,  "When they get into an argument, it is a real argument that takes place, even though things get silly as time goes on."

Though the play is just 90 minutes or so, there is an intermission to allow the actors to catch their breath, "and reload all the props," adds McCabe who plays Holmes, and many others. Watson is played by Jonathan Croy, whose character remains pretty consistent throughout. Keeping the 15 roles played by the other two actors straight is no easy task. "I have the most roles to swap back and forth, and I don't keep them all perfectly in character," says McCabe. "There's one scene where I play a character with a limp, but when I come on seconds later as Holmes, I sometimes find myself still limping because it happens so fast it is often blurry."

For all the details laid down in the script, there are still times that the actors find ways to put their own stamp on it. "That's what makes it special," Croy chimes in, "So every reading is totally original. They guys who wrote it were the first performers, and they created it among themselves," he adds. "They gave us the green light to make it our own, and Tony Simotes keeps us on track."

The physical comedy is the toughest, and here it is practice that makes it perfect. The actors agreed that the play will be better in October than it is in September, as the routines inevitably improve with repeated performances.

In fast moving, spontaneous shows such as this, chances are that costumes may take a bit longer to change, or drape differently and dialog readings may vary from show to show, and result in unexpected laughter from the audience. So I wondered if there was any chance that should the audience find something especially funny or laugh unexpectedly, if they too would break character and start laughing themselves. "No.". "Absolutely not." "Never.!" they agreed. And then they all cracked up, laughing uproariously at the very thought.  "Laughs happen."  "You never know," they admitted.

The flow of the show is so manic, I wondered how they kept it all straight.  "Well I don't know about you guys," Ryan Winkles offered, "But for me it's like an out of body experience. It's like OK, it's time my eyes are rolled back in my head. I'm wondering, what happens next, what's the next scene, what do I say, what's my next prop, where's my next prop, did I get the right costume, it all flashes through my head in an instant. It's mastering the complexity of the landscape, of holding on to the bigger picture, first this, then this, and that, and this. The challenge is more than learning the lines, it is learning the play itself."

From what I saw, there is as much choreography to this play as lines, and neither the lines nor the action seems to let up for a second. "Sometimes I finish a scene, then run off stage without a clue as to what my next scene is. And I look to the backstage crew to get me ready and clue me in.So Katie Midland, our assistant costume designer is helping me on with a costume and I ask her, what scene is this? And I continue on. Without them I genuinely would not have a clue. It's exciting and terrifying."

Favorite scenes? "I love the Holmes-Watson scenes," says Josh McCabe, "where you live in the characters and see the relationships." We also had fun yesterday in rehearsal creating the portrait images where I had to be a guy, a girl and a kid, then Sir Hugo." And then one of the portraits, reaches out and takes a swig from the bottle on the table. "Yeah, we added things, too."

Tony Simotes, the director arrives, obviously quite pleased. "Putting together that frame business was a lot of fun, as was devising the Tango scene.  You know that was our first complete run through of Act II and you guys were really able to do it. It was really fast, it's all coalesced together, and it was really good."  Everyone relaxed a bit and looked at the Captain for further notes.  "It ran 39 minutes without the section which repeats the action in Act I."  Was that for latecomers, I joked. "It's in the script and our intention is in answer to Watson's insistence that they go over all the pertinent facts one more time." Though I didn't see it, it apparently is the first act in fast forward mode.

As madcap as the play is, Simotes notes, it is still a genuine Sherlock Holmes  mystery with a serious side. "One of the great characterizations of this play is Johathan Croy's Watson," he points out. "He is the only one who gets to play one role all the way through. He is basically the serious one, the straight man amidst everyone else's craziness. His sober performance is the rock on which all the others depend. He can take a line that can be played for laughs, give it a new twist and prove that sometimes less can be more."

Simotes was clearly having fun with this production, his first as the new Artistic Director of the company, now that Packer has become the Founding Artistic Director. "Not everything I do is necessarily fun in the leadership role, but this is truly a joy to direct," he enthused, "and I was  given a free hand in assembling the team. I knew I had to have Jonathan, and these two guys, Ryan and Josh, and I have a history that goes back quite a bit. I had hoped they would become a great team of funny actors, and they have not let me down, they've exceeded my expectations."

Jonathan Croy noted that Simotes was his most important key to Shakespeare & Company - other than Tina - when he arrived in 1982. "He was the first person I met, and was introduced to when I walked through the doors of the company. It's a funny place that way, that you can go back three decades with someone, not see them for a while, and pick up where you left off."

Swapping stories, Simotes noted that he met Croy's wife, Jenna Ware, when she was 16, "Quite a few years ago," he joked, "And we're still together," the ribbing continued.  Ware is in her 16th Season with the Company, Croy his 24th. Winkles and McCabe are in their 4th Seasons. It is much like a familiar community of old friends.

"It is the experience of becoming close that  makes Shakespeare & Company much like a family, or close knit friends. You spend time together, go away to do other  things, but always come back. This deepens and enriches our ability to work together, and makes it a truly wonderful experience," says Simotes. "In the end the three actors become an ensemble, like a string trio, each taking their cues from the other, so that they become a flawless, smoothly functioning unit. And when that happens, the results on stage transcend the individual performances."

Good friends who know each other well also also know how to have good times together. Perhaps that is why the many humorous elements of Hound of the Baskervilles seem to blend together so seamlessly. The actors are able to drive this hilarious vehicle of a play at supersonic speed with the audience in hot pursuit. Three actors toss off gags, clues and costumes at breakneck speed. The result is a combination of mystery, mayhem and madness that's well on its way to becoming the hot ticket for Fall 2009.

The Hound of the Baskervilles plays in the Elayne P. Bernstein theatre from September 18 through November 8. Performances in the evenings run at 7:30 p.m. and in the afternoons at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $12 to $48. For a complete listing of productions and schedules, to inquire about the 40% Berkshire Resident Discount, Youth Rush tickets, or other discounts, or to receive a brochure, please call the Box Office at (413) 637-3353 or visit

The early press release on this show was one of the funniest we have ever seen. Here is what it said:

In the spirit of The Compleat Works, The Hound of the Baskervilles features three actors who breathlessly play all 16 characters as they run from scene to scene, changing costumes and sets (and towels) along the way. Croy, a mildly embarrassed veteran of S&Co.'s productions of The Compleat Works, directed critically acclaimed productions of Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet this season (and kept audiences in stitches with his roles in The Ladies Man in 2008 and Rough Crossing in 2007) before taking on the role of Watson, clearly not the quickest bunny in the forest (among other roles). With his slight frame and gentle, girlish goatee, McCabe ably plays all the female roles, including two husband-and-wife pairs, one of whom has a distinct Spanish accentÂ…or at least we think that's supposed to be Spanish. Plus some guy named Sherlock. Winkles, who delighted audiences this season with his gut-busting performance as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, enriches (hah) his credentials with a turn as the iconic Yokel #2, among other roles, in Hound.
"After the powerful experience of re-mounting our extraordinary production of Othello, I wanted to continue my first season as Artistic Director of Shakespeare & Company with a richly layered production that entertains while speaking profound truths about the human condition—and to make Tina proud along the way," Simotes explains. "But instead, I directed this."
Shakespeare & Company had a runaway hit with its American premiere of The Secret of Sherlock Holmes in 2007, drawing Sherlock devotees from far and wide and even hatching a three-day "Sherlock Weekend" filled with Victorian-themed events and presentations from some of the leading experts on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's works. Now, S&Co. is hoping desperately that some of those Sherlock fans have a sense of humor.
At the heart of this play is Sir Arthur's cherished story, about an aristocratic British family which is terrorized, generation upon generation, by a spectral hound intent on killing all the male heirs. The great detective Sherlock Holmes sends his trusted sidekick Watson to the appropriately eerie countryside to investigate, while he observes in disguise. The duo meets a parade of unforgettable local characters, whose potential guiltiness seems connected to the size of their suspiciously hirsute chins.
Simotes points to the rich detail included in the original story, creating a fully contained world in which the reader (and now, the theatergoer) can become engrossed. "It's the amazing specificity of the mystery writer," Simotes says. "Doyle was an absolute master, who had done his research. None of the details are accidental. This story is filled with real locations, and it takes place somewhere that's particularly eerie and spooky, even for England. It reminds me of the great horror films from the 1950's. The reason those stories are so resonant is that, despite their frequent campiness, they're informed by the anxieties of the Atomic Age and the very real threat of the end of the world. Our Hound of the Baskervilles won't be quite so unnerving—at least, not on purpose—but it will be great fun to play in this world, one that is so richly captured on the page."

Will the hound be caught? Will the source of the Baskervilles' troubles be found? Will Holmes and Watson make it out of there alive? And will Shakespeare & Company raise another million dollars to get its Kresge Foundation incentive grant? The answers can only be found at The Hound of the Baskervilles. And if that doesn't work, it always helps to buy another ticket and come again. In fact, a lot of people like to buy extra tickets so they have plenty of elbow room. We're just saying.

Who is Who in this Production:

STEVEN CANNY (Co-author, The Hound of the Baskervilles) is a director, playwright and frequent collaborator with Peepolykus, an award-winning international theatre company based in England. Collaborations include: SPYSKI! and The Hound of the Baskervilles with John Nicholson. Steven is a founder member of Hullaballo and Rollercoaster theatre companies and associate director of GRiP Theatre.

JOHN NICHOLSON (Co-author, The Hound of the Baskervilles) is a founder-director of, and regular performer with, the award-winning international theatre company Peepolykus, which specializes in its own peculiar brand of madcap comedy. Peepolykus credits: SPYSKI! (or The Importance of Being Earnest), No Man's Land, Squid, Let the Donkey Go, I Am a Coffee, Horses for Courses, Midsummer Rude Mechanicals, Goose Nights, Rhinoceros, Mindbender and All In The Timing.

TONY SIMOTES founding member, thirty-second season (Director and Fight Director of Othello, Director of Hound of the Baskervilles; Artistic Director) Tony is a Master Teacher of Fight and Movement and has been one of the Company's Artistic Associates since 1995. S&Co Director: The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Nights Dream, As You Like It, and Two Gentlemen of Verona. He's been an Associate Director and Fight Director on many of Tina Packer's shows over the years and is pleased to be back in the Berkshires this season. His work as a fight choreographer and director has been featured from coast to coast from the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles to the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theater.

Recent directing credits include: Director of War of the Worlds which was broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Radio for the 75th anniversary of the Orson Wells presentation that panicked a nation; The Nerd for Madison Repertory Theatre and Fight Direction for Macbeth at Orlando Shakespeare Theatre. Internationally his work has been featured in The Stage X Festival in Brisbane Australia, The Canadian Stage Company in Toronto and in Vancouver at Theater 48 New Play Festival, just to name a few. Mr. Simotes also works as an actor and is a proud member of AEA, SAG and AFTRA. Mr. Simotes is on leave from his position at the University of Wisconsin–Madison where he is a full professor and recent Director of Theatre. A Standing O for my gal – Lucy.

JONATHAN CROY twenty-fourth season (Director of Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, or What You Will, Ensemble in Hound of the Baskervilles). A Company member since 1982, Jon has played more than 60 roles in over 50 plays, including Rough Crossing (Turai), The Merry Wives of Windsor (Dr. Caius), The Taming of the Shrew (Baptista), Much Ado About Nothing (Don Pedro), Henry V (Pistol/French King), The Tempest (Caliban), Complete Works abridged (Jon), Twelfth Night (Orsino), Richard III (Buckingham), A Midsummer Night's Dream (Bottom), Comedy of Errors (Dromio of Syracuse), Custom of the Country (Elmer Moffat), Twelfth Night (Aguecheek), Macbeth (title role), and Much Ado About Nothing (Benedick).

Jon has directed many New England Tours, Shakespeare in the Courts programs, Summer Institute productions, Young Company performances, and more than 40 others in Residencies. Jon has directed professionally in Chicago, Milwaukee and North Carolina...and has acted at the NY Shakespeare Festival, Missouri Rep, NC Shakespeare Festival, Virginia Shakespeare Festival, Indiana Rep, St. Louis Rep, Milwaukee Rep, Playmakers Rep, the Studio Arena, The Woodstock Playhouse, The Actors' Theatre, the Actors' Warehouse, and the Actors' Lab...others, too, with strange names—Sparkplug Stage Co., The New Theatre Co., Monkeywrench Productions, Twentieth Century, ComedyCo., The Lighter Side Theater Co.

JOSH AARON MCCABE fourth season (Ensemble in Hound of the Baskervilles, Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses). S&Co: The Host of the Garter in Merry Wives of Windsor and the title role in the New England Tour of Macbeth. Josh performed Off-Broadway playing the role of Mike in the New York Times critically acclaimed Peep Show at Actor's Playhouse. Regional theatres include Madison Repertory Theatre: The Nerd (Axel Hammond) & A Moon for the Misbegotten (T. Steadman Harder), Milwaukee's Chamber Theatre: Misalliance (Johnny Tarleton) & The Moonlight Room (Adam Levy), Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati: More Fun Than Bowling (Jake), and most recently performed in the world premiere of The Dig (Tom, Peddler) at Renaissance Theaterworks in Milwaukee.

He has played principal roles in national commercials, as well as appearing in various daytime serials and Saturday Night Live. Josh is honored to be a part of S&Co's Education Dept, directing/ teaching in Fall Festivals of Shakespeare, Middle School Residencies, Young Company and Shakespeare in the Courts. Josh received his MFA in Acting from The University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a proud member of AEA, AFTRA and SAG.

RYAN WINKLES fourth season (Roderigo/Fight Captain in Othello, Sir Andrew/Fight Captain in Twelfth Night, Ensemble in Hound of the Baskervilles) is pleased to be returning to Shakespeare & Company. S&Co: Othello (Roderigo), A Midsummer Night's Dream (Flute), Antony & Cleopatra (Pompey/Eros), The Merry Wives of Windsor (Fenton), Macbeth 2007 Spring Tour (Banquo, The Porter).  Milwaukee Chamber Theatre: Misalliance (Bentley) A Christmas Memory (Buddy). Madison Repertory Theatre: Muskie Love (Claude). Ryan is also a graduate of the UW-Madison MFA Acting Program.