You can use words like hilarious, zany, fast-paced and irresistible to describe West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park’s current production of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” but you shouldn’t call it “mindless.” Yes, its sole purpose is to entertain an audience with its wildly comedic take on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle classic featuring his renown literary creation Sherlock Holmes. And yes, it aims to be nothing more than a slapstick evening filled with sight gags, physical humor and puns, as well as an opportunity for three game actors to not only showcase their talents but have a helluva lot of fun.
But to call this “Hound” mindless would betray the amount of ingenious effort put into adapting the work by Britishers Steven Canny and John Nicholson and ignore the efforts of director Tom Ridgely and his cast to retain a cogent yet funny story line while resisting the temptation to go overboard with unnecessary and exaggerated bits of humor. It’s clear that a lot of thought and careful planning had to go into the creation of this production and much of the enjoyment is directly traceable to the show’s ability to maintaining this balance.
Fortunately, Jason Simms’ set design leaves the actors with few opportunities to chew the scenery, but I don't think this crew would be tempted.. A dark paneled back wall with two sets of large double doors faces the audience with a floor patterned with a compass-like design easily transports the audience—with the aid of a chair, a bench, a potted palm and a few other accoutrements—to all the required locations, including a massive country estate, a bath house, Holmes’s quarters on Baker Street, a country village complete with a pair of hayseeds, and the dark and dangerous moors, which contain such hazards as quicksand, a murderous beast and an escaped serial killer.
The mood is aided significantly by Adam Frank’s appropriately atmospheric lighting, which can rapidly accommodate a switch from indoors to outdoor, create a sudden burst of lightning or allow us a glimpse a fleeing figure in the dark. Sound designer Ryan Kelly also deserves praise not only for providing the aural equivalent of things that go bump in the night but for designing a clever set of deep-forest sounds that spur a character’s fear-stimulated fusillade. “Hound” has probably one of the more complex sound designs of any of the Playhouse’s shows thus far and deserves recognition for its contributions to the evening’s success.
It is the antics of the cast, however, that provide the most exquisite enjoyment of the evening. Two of the leads, Playhouse Co-Artistic Director Sean Harris and frequent visitor Rich Hollman have proven their abilities as accomplished farceurs in previous Playhouse productions and they possess an easy-going familiarity that underlines their performances as Dr. Watson (Harris) and Holmes (Hollman). The latter plays Holmes with a relaxed effeteness, exemplified by the various ways he straddles a chair, that befits the actor’s lanky frame. His Holmes is filled with a delicious superiority that allows him to mentor the overly trusting and occasionally befuddled Watson of Harris.
They are joined by Playhouse newcomer Brennan Caldwell, recently of Yale where he played the lead in “Sweeney Todd.” He fits into this new trio just fine, but his junior status as the “new kid” allows some delicious jokes to be extracted at his expense. He also demonstrates ample talent for farce as he plays Sir Henry Baskerville, the last remaining Baskerville heir who eventually hires Holmes and Watson for protection as well as to find out who or what killed his uncle, Sir Charles Baskerville, several week earlier out on the moors.
Of course, the evening would be disappointing without such classical farce elements as characters in drag and, again, “Hounds” comes through. Most of the cross-dressing responsibilities fall to Hollman, who eagerly dives into such characters as Cicley Stapleton, the sister of a neighboring botanist who becomes Sir Henry’s love interest, and Mrs. Barrymore, the wife of the caretaker of Baskerville Hall. Hollman is especially droll when he plays Mr. Barrymore lamely attempting to disguise himself as his wife in order to keep some of her secrets from Watson and Sir Henry. Hollman makes the most of his role as quick change artist, deliberately drawing out some close calls for the enjoyment of the audience, although for one woman in the audience it obviously was not fast enough, or so she supposedly tweeted during the show’s intermission. (Which of course was picked up by Hollman or someone associated with the show and brought to the audience’s attention.)
But all three performers put in yeoman’s work, as pratfalls, funny walks and exaggerated reactions are required of each. Caldwell, for example, has a running gag about a pair of missing trousers that requires the requisite quick-change, and all must find ways to rapidly morph into all of their characters during a madcap recap of the events of the first act.
Erin Kacmarcik has been given the task of creating a plethora of Victorian era costumes that can be unique to each character while able to be swiftly removed and replaced or worn under other costumes. Her outfits are all period-centric but she does get to have some fun with the women’s dresses, the men’s robes, and the villagers’ costumes.
It’s easy to imagine how such farcical situations could easily get out of hand. It is to Ridgley’s credit that he is able to keep his cast in line, while allowing them sufficient room to create characters sufficiently broad and entertaining. Even the scripted moments when the actors break character and “become themselves” are handled well and believably, without breaking the spell that they’ve created with their various characters.
For a break from the holiday hecticness, an audience can’t go wrong with two and a quarter hours spent at the Playhouse on Park. “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” doesn’t make any demands on the audience other than to take their minds off of their problems and deadlines. Its a nice escape from the holidays but at the same time something that older teens and returning college students can enjoy with their parents.
To keep up with theatrical activities in Connecticut, consider subscribing to the Hartford Arts Examiner by clicking on the word “Subscribe” at the top of this article. A copy of each new article will be sent to your inbox as soon as it is uploaded. To keep up with theatrical activities in western Massachusetts and the Berkshires, consider subscribing to the Springfield Art Examiner.