Fast-paced "Hound of the Baskervilles" farces in Norfolk is great fun
By Mal Vincent
Mar 1, 2018
Something is afoot – and it’s not elementary.
There are those who might be pleased to see the insufferably smart Sherlock Holmes get his comeuppance. They should revel in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” the knockabout spoof at the Wells Theatre through March 11.
It could have been more fun were it not intent on sticking to the basic plot, but it’s certainly irreverent and it gets its laughs, whether it’s poking fun at the self-serious detective or the self-serious world of small-time theater.
The show is the latest display of performers playing multiple roles in a quick-change rush. Here, three actors perform about 15 roles, including Holmes, a befuddled Dr. Watson (pondering how many kisses he should give the detective) and members of a cursed family . The wealthy Baskervilles are hounded by an offstage fiend
, a glowing dog with fangs that lives out on the moors. As in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1902 novel, Holmes and Watson must get to the bottom of the supposed curse .
This “Baskervilles” spoof was adapted by Britishers Steven Canny and John Nicholson. Here is a sobering reminder that the same country that gave us William Shakespeare also gave us Benny Hill. An antic five-actor version – “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” – plays tonight at The American Theatre in Hampton.
Here, everything depends on split-second timing for the performers in what they describe as “stage magic.” The novelty of such quick-change artistry has waned, following local productions of shows with similar set-ups: “Around the World in 80 Days,” “Travels With My Aunt” and the champion of them all, “The 39 Steps,” which had a run for two years on Broadway and got several Tony nominations.
However, the director here, Mark Shanahan, knows how to pull this off. He was an understudy for “Steps” on Broadway and has directed that play and this “Baskervilles” spoof at regional theaters.
The three frantic actors, who will probably lose some weight before the show closes on March 11, get to perform some partial costume changes, as compared to full-attire changes. (That means a hat or a prop sometimes serves.)
The most amazing feats come when they appear to bounce along in a nonexistent cab and when they “run in place.” There is also a steam-room scene in which Holmes, mercifully, keeps on his business suit beneath a towel.
Perhaps the hardest-working cast member is Patrick Halley, who is a rather youthful Holmes and also plays two married couples. He’s particularly fetching as a South American senorita who participates in a tango-like dance. Portions of the audience howled in laughter.
As Dr. Watson, Bruce Warren is stuck with a particularly inept, befuddled version of the sidekick. Here, he is also saddled with many of the plentiful off-color jokes about amorous intentions toward the detective. Repetition is not always a friend to comedy.
Steve Pacek displays the best legs in the cast and has great spirit about it all.
Pacek also plays a dead Baskerville. (He dies of a heart attack upon seeing the hound, regrettably offstage. We would like to have seen the pooch, too.) As a live Baskerville, he is the family member who must bear the curse.
There is more plot than you would expect, which is not necessarily to the good. Suspense is the last thing you expect to get from a farce such as this. Or logic.
Jeni Schaefer’s costumes are shabby on purpose, because second-rate music halls are, perhaps, more the target than are the Holmes books. John Ambrosone’s lighting is effective, and Sean Hagerty’s sound design is even better. That’s an awesomely howling hound.
If this foolishness is too foolish for you, stay tuned. The Virginia Stage Company’s next offering is the intense, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Disgraced,” about a dinner party where people with very different backgrounds get tense when religion, the economy and Islamophobia are discussed.
In the meantime, this is great fun. If you’ve never seen one of these “multi-role” shows, you might even find it amazing. If you are in the mood for zany foolishness, go ahead, buy a ticket.