Review: “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at Hudson Stage Company

John P. McCarthy

  • New York Critic

Armonk, NY – In his program note, director Mark Shanahan discusses the overriding and readily apparent feature of “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” While celebrating the inherent theatricality of Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales about sleuth Sherlock Holmes, this madcap play is a love letter to the theater in general.

The plush red curtain and burnished proscenium arch used by HSC’s set designer David Arsenault are an invitation to revel in the magic of the stage. And a mere ninety seconds into the show, the three cast members invite the audience to participate in a way (no literal participation is required) when they break character and address them directly. Ostensibly, they caution spectators about the scary nature of what follows. But that’s a ruse. What they’re really doing is signaling that the play is a self-referential, meta exercise for theater lovers on both sides of the footlights. Sherlock Holmes aficionados, or at least those lacking a passion for the theater, seem to be something of an afterthought.

Drawing attention to the mechanics of performance in this way is a gamble. Adaptors Steven Canny and John Nicholson run the risk of alienating those who revere the text, one of Doyle’s best-known Sherlock Holmes yarns. That said, their farcical riff seems faithful enough and, presumably, the number of Holmes fanatics who might take offense is low. They stand a greater chance of disappointing devotees of live theater. Rather than create an atmosphere of intimate collaboration, having the actors casually ignore the fourth wall on occasion could conceivably solidify the barrier between performer and punter (as in paying member of the public). In other words, emphasizing the artificiality of a theatrical piece – revealing too much about the tools and devices employed – can backfire if the desired effects aren’t forthcoming.  

Fortunately, this absurd romp fulfills most of its promise thanks to the cheeky aplomb with which Matt Ban, Joe Delafield and Denis Lambert deliver the script’s bad puns and remedial wordplay and otherwise convey its antic, if somewhat nostalgic, spirit.

Ban assumes the role of the lumbering, relatively dim-witted and perpetually famished sidekick Dr. Watson. In addition to several smaller parts, Delafield portrays the high-strung Baskerville scion targeted by a vicious cur on the moors. And finally, armed with an ideal, elastically expressive face for a spoof, Lambert gleefully plays Holmes and other key characters, including two women.

This well-cast troika elicits a consistent stream of titters and giggles and a smattering of belly laughs. My enjoyment peaked at the start of the second half when Lambert complains about an unflattering assessment of his performance that a (fictitious) member of the audience Tweeted during intermission. Indignant, he insists they re-do the first half of the play in triple time and the ensuing speed version of act one is uproariously funny.  

Alas, tampering with the mystery for humor’s sake does take its toll. The show doesn’t build to an especially satisfying crescendo from either a comedic or a dramatic perspective. Moreover, at the performance I attended apparent hiccups with the lighting during the climactic scenes were a distraction and interfered with the narrative momentum.

Even minor technical glitches are a reminder that the actors aren’t working in a vacuum and that those performing behind the scenes are vital to the success of any theater project. This is especially true given the number and intricacy of the sound effects, lighting cues, costume changes and other bits of time-sensitive stagecraft called for here.

Aside from the mention of Twitter, “The Hound of the Baskervilles” lacks significant references to the present-day or contemporary life. It’s not timely or relevant; it has no political or social import. And as I’ve alluded to earlier, it doesn’t even have any bite as a satirical take on Doyle’s literary oeuvre, the figure of Sherlock Holmes, or his relationship with Watson. Yet this doesn’t mean it can be written off as a pleasantly amusing diversion or source of escapist entertainment.

Not only does “The Hound of the Baskervilles” pay tribute to the British music hall and pantomime traditions from which it has sprung, it’s an ode to the power of all live theater to mysteriously turn words, sounds, movement, and material things into a captivating experience that has the potential to change the life of someone who witnesses it once, as well as the lives of those who create it night after night.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” runs at Hudson Stage Company at the Whippoorwill Hall Theatre, North Castle Library in Armonk through May 13, 2017