Review: ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

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Turning The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of Sherlock Holmes’ most famous cases, from a mystery into a small-cast comedy is an idea that sure gets around. Hedgerow Theatre staged a four-actor version written by their resident playwright Brock D. Vickers last year. And veteran playwright Ken Ludwig created a five-actor version with Baskerville – A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, which premiered at McCarter Theatre in 2015. When I reviewed Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production later that year, I wrote that even though Ludwig had turned the story into a knockabout farce, “I am happy to report that Holmes survives Baskerville with his reputation and his dignity intact.”

Carl N. Wallnau, Jacob Dresch, and Greg Wood. Photo by Lee A. Butz.

Carl N. Wallnau, Jacob Dresch, and Greg Wood. Photo by Lee A. Butz.

Now another farcical take on The Hound of the Baskervilles has turned up in Greater Philadelphia, this one adapted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic by Steven Canny & John Nicholson. Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s production looks fabulous and has a great cast. But does Holmes survive it with his reputation and his dignity intact? Well, not so much. But unless you’re a Holmes purist, you may not mind.

Canny and Nicholson have reduced the cast to three persons, playing sixteen roles. (The influence of the hit four-actor stage version of The 39 Steps can be felt strongly here.) And the plot, about a ghostly-seeming hound that terrorizes a wealthy English family, is treated almost as an afterthought. (One of Conan Doyle’s major plot points – the reason the hound seems to glow in the dark – is never even mentioned.)

Carl N. Wallnau and Greg Wood. Photo by Lee A. Butz.

Carl N. Wallnau and Greg Wood. Photo by Lee A. Butz.

Instead, the emphasis is on comedy, some of which is quite clever. But a lot of the jokes are excessively corny. And if you’re a devoted fan of Holmes and Watson, a lot of the humor might make you blanch. Granted, Watson isn’t supposed to be as smart as Holmes, but that’s because Holmes is a genius; when you hear Holmes actually call Watson “an idiot,” it makes you wonder why these two even hang around together. There’s also an excessive use of modern American colloquialisms (“Come as my plus-one”) for a story set in England circa 1900. A subplot in which the actors step out of character (after one of them supposedly gets a death threat) is groan-inducing. And there are even poop jokes and a surprising number of homophobic gags, which add a level of coarseness that is completely wrong for a Holmes story.

Still, the talented cast of comic professionals attacks the material ferociously and elevates it. Greg Wood plays Holmes with his usual polish, but he also plays a variety of wild characterizations, both male and female. Carl N. Wallnau sticks mostly to Watson, but also turns up as one of the wild-eyed “Yokels” who comment on the proceedings. And Jacob Dresch plays all the other roles, including multiple members of the troubled Baskerville family. Their versatility is a joy to watch, and Jim Helsinger’s lightning-quick direction emphasizes their tight chemistry. (A sequence set on a bumpy train ride, in which Wallnau and Dresch shake in every possible direction, is a delightful example of pantomime, accentuated by Don Tindall’s seamless sound design.)

Helsinger’s production uses virtually every inch of the thrust stage at the Schubert Theater, with the actors repeatedly making entrances and exits from all four corners. Steve TenEyck’s set and lighting design provide the impression of luxury, and Lisa Zinni’s wide-ranging costumes add to the effect.

The production’s lush look and top-notch cast make PSF’s The Hound of the Baskervilles an enjoyable ride. It’s uproariously funny at times; you can’t help but laugh at some of the ridiculous extremes that Holmes and Watson go through to find who’s behind the attacks. But if you want to find an adaptation that sticks closer to the spirit of Sherlock Holmes, don’t worry – there are plenty of others out there.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including an intermission.

Carl N. Wallnau and Jacob Dresch. Photo by Lee A. Butz.

Carl N. Wallnau and Jacob Dresch. Photo by Lee A. Butz.

The Hound of the Baskervilles plays through Sunday, July 16, 2017 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Schubert Theater – 2755 Station Avenue, in Center Valley, PA, on the Campus of DeSales University. For tickets, call (610) 282-WILL, or purchase them online.

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