BY BRUCE APAR
When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act!
The Hound of the Baskervilles
Adapted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel
By Steven Canny and John Nicholson
Directed by Mark Shanahan
Through May 13, 2017 (weekends)
Whippoorwill Hall Theatre at North Castle Library
Kent Place, Armonk, New York 10504
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In the gut-busting production of The Hound of the Baskervilles now doubling over audiences at Hudson Stage in Armonk, there are some 20 characters on stage–but only three actors.
How does that work? Like clockwork! More precisely, like a crazy, cuckoo clock with sleight of hands that move at lightning speed–forward, backward and wayward.
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This raucous confection not only makes bloody good fun of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic sleuth and his sidekick Dr. Watson. The farcical play makes fun of its own clever contrivances. It even mocks its actors, who occasionally step out of character as themselves. Oh, don’t feel sorry for them. Not for one minute. In fact, it’s difficult at times to discern who is having more fun: The people on stage or the people in the audience. No matter. Fun it is, from beginning to end, and back again.
HEY, LET’S RE-RUN ACT I… IN HIGH SPEED
As Act II begins, the actor who plays Sherlock Holmes and a host of other characters (quick-change whirling dervish Denis Lambert) insists to his incredulous castmates that they re-run the first Act… in high-speed. Why? Because, complains the indignant Lambert, a supposed member of the audience during intermission tweeted that the actor slowed down the hijinks with his sluggish performance. To redeem himself, Lambert exhorts his sidekicks to race headlong through the highlights of Act I. And they oblige him. (It reminded me of the show-stopping musical number in Broadway hit “The Producers” that recaps the entire plot to that point. The music here is the melodic notes of laughter.)
Denis Lambert’s partners in crime-solving are Joe Delafield (Sir Charles Baskerville and others) and Matt Ban (Dr. Watson and others). They form a tight, nimble comedy troupe that performs with vaudevillian brio, donning and doffing headwear and outerwear, plus smoothly transporting props on and off stage to create the illusion of a much fuller cast of characters and settings. The fancy feet work they do is no easy feat, , and their collective efforts are to be vigorously applauded and admired, especially by other actors who amply can appreciate the challenging tasks at hand. The transformative costumes that constantly morph are a real stitch, the seamless handiwork of Jeni Schaefer and Charlotte Palmer-Lane.
KNOCK, KNOCK! WHO’S THERE?
“What can you deduce about that knocking?” asks Holmes of Watson, who replies, with unerring instinct, “It’s coming from the door.” That’s just a very light taste of the silly yet puckishly authentic repartee and gags that trigger guffaws aplenty.
If all this sounds veddy Monty Pythonesque, there’s good reason. The co-writers of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” – Steven Canny and John Nicholson, billed as “adaptors” to pay due homage to their muse, Sir Arthur – have extensive credentials as comedy writers for England’s BBC TV network. Whether it’s Monty Python or Benny Hill, the Brits love their comedy dry, punny and slapsticky, and they love their literature immortal, from Shakespeare to Sherlock to, well, Harry (Potter, not Prince).
Throughout the fast-paced romp of the Baskervilles, the suspenseful storyline somehow stays intact, providing a sturdy, timeless framework for tongue-in-cheeky wordplay, non-stop physical comedy, and whimsical winks at the audience, which winks back by gleefully going along for the joy ride.
The case they must crack is simply stated: Members of the wealthy Baskerville clan are being hounded to death by a rabid Rover. Holmes and Watson wend their way through the moors and the mire and some slippery sorts to solve the mystery. And the game’s afoot.
WHAT A HANSOM CAB THAT IS!
Kudos to director Mark Shanahan and choreographer Stephanie Card, who do a masterly job of keeping the action throttling forward at breakneck speed. That includes putting the actors through some bouncy paces as they ride in a horse-drawn, hansom cab and on a train.
As is standard operating procedure for Hudson Stage and its producing team of Denise Bessette, Olivia Sklar and Dan Foster, the production is expertly staged, with tender loving care assigned to every aspect of stagecraft.
The sensual sound design, by Sean Hagerty, credibly creates a sense of place, whether it’s a howling hound or an ominous wind or a creaking door or mooing cows. The visual effects are fun to take in as well. For example, with the right balance of imagination and artistry, a household object placed on stage by the actor – such as a pail billowing steam — can adequately signify a sauna.
Before the play began, a smile came over my face at the sight of the elaborate set, another hallmark of Hudson Stage’s consistently tony style of theater. This time it is a gorgeously rendered recreation of an early 20th Century proscenium arch theater with carved wood columns and burgundy red curtains flanking the stage (scenery by David Arsenault.)
To someone who’s never been inside North Castle Library’s Whippoorwill Theatre – an eminently audience-friendly and actor-friendly performing space — odds are they’d be none the wiser thinking the current décor is the permanent stage. It’s that convincing. I thought to myself, “This is throwback theater!” Go to the Whippoorwill in Armonk, throw yourself back in the comfy seats, prepare to act like a hound, and howl.
Bruce Apar is Chief Content Officer of Pinpoint Marketing & Design, a Google Partner Agency. Its Adventix division helps performing arts venues, including The Schoolhouse Theater, increase ticket sales. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals, including Westchester Magazine. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (914) 275-6887.