The Hound of the Baskervilles by Steven Canny and John Nicholson. Directed by Tony Simotes.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...stretched the metaphor far enough."
I have argued with everyone for much too long, far too many years. In spite of almost every movie or play Iíve seen about Sherlock Holmes, and this is true of all of them, Dr. Watson is practically never given his due. He is neither stupid, foolish or inane. He is a smart man. He is an honest chronicler of Holmes exploits and adventures. He is a true companion. He is a brilliant doctor with a long history of medical triumphs under difficult circumstances and, through his association with the detective, he is an observant aide to Holmesí criminal investigations. He is not the "foil."
In "The Hound of the Baskervilles" Watson has always been placed at the center of the action. It is Holmes intention that the villains of the piece believe that Watson is the mastermind. Watson is actually the one who uncovers plot points and identifies probabilities - the role usually associated with Holmes.
Now, for the first time, Watson is the star of his own show. A three-man script requiring lightning fast costume and character changes for two of its players, this new version of the Baskerville story gives center stage to Watson. Itís about time, too. And, in keeping with the situation - and the previous situations - the horrors of the tale are among the funniest moments of the 2009 season at Shakespeare and Company.
Under Tony Simotesí inspired direction the farcical elements easily overtake the emotional moments. The characterizations stimulate the laughter and the performances cloud the memory with so many brilliant and hysterical realizations.
Jonathan Croy, Josh Aaron McCabe and Ryan Winkles are a perfect ensemble. I lost count on how many different roles are taken by McCabe and Winkles, but the official number seems to be 15. McCabe is Holmes, first and foremost, and also the beautiful Brazilian vamp, Cecile. Winkles plays Sir Henry Baskerville, a Canadian and also his own lawyer, a Scotsman with a bagged lamb and his distant cousin who may not be what he seems. Croy plays Watson, so integral to every scene that he can only take on the role of a gypsy guitar-fiddler in the extraordinarily sensual La Cumparsita dance sequence.
I know, Holmes purists; there is no La Cumparsita dance sequence. Well, there is, actually and it is one of the funniest bits in an otherwise hilarious two hour evening.
Winkles has fast become one of the companyís finest physical comedians. As Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night and Flute in A Midsummerís Night Dream he nearly stole the shows away from long-term players. In the current show he brings a fluidity and variation to his many characters that seems born out of a natural lack of humility. He is equally comfortable with his pants off or on. He contorts his face and body into character requirements without flinching. He is believably straight, gay, young, old, you-name-it. He cannot play an adonis, but that may be the only role for which he is not yet ready. And Iím not sure of that, actually.
McCabeís strong jawed, full-chinned Holmes is superb. He is not the classic Michael Hammond Holmes, but he brings a confidence to the role that allows even the silliest lines to seem exactly right. His household servants - husband and wife - are delicious and the funniest jokes about costume changes are his as he struggles back and forth between the two. As Cecile he manages to make obvious drag into serious romance and he handles fans better than Sally Rand (the stripper/fan dancer) would have done.
Croy is a master of farce comedy and he plays his relatively straight role in this show with all of that finesse and experience behind him. The man is a laugh-riot all by himself as he shoots his pistol (sort of) to protect the beleaguered Sir Henry. He handles the verbal sparring in this rapid-fire comedy with aplomb. His almost magically common face lights up with handsome enthusiasm whenever his character feels pride in getting things right. He is the Zeppo that the Groucho and Harpo of Winkles and McCabe use to exploit their absurdities: the Marx Brothers of Shakespeare and Company.
In this American premiere of the play, director Simotes and his production team have provided the threesome with everything they need to pull off the wilder aspects of the play. Nothing deters this trio, not missing costume pieces, nor falling props, from completing each moment perfectly. Jim Youngermanís set pieces provide enough of an indication to keep the viewer on track as to place. Steve Ballís lighting lets us see everything, including minor mistakes that really donít matter. Govane Lohbauerís costumes are sometimes just as funny as their occupants, sometimes simply grand indicators of class and station. Alexander Sovronsky has created a musical ambience that truly enhances the play.
A major departure for this company in their autumn mystery/horror series, this fast-paced farce might confuse young children, but in its sell-out opening night, even an audience participation moment had its pride of place and made the fun that much funnier.
As a proponent of the correctness of Dr. Watsonís place in the realm of superior people, I am proud of the authors, the company and Jonathan Croy for finally rescuing the character from the ridiculous and raising him to the sublime through the ridiculous. This is a delicious delicacy, an evening of theater that would give even a cynical, critical show-hater an appetite for more live performances.
Josh Aaron McCabe as Holmes, Jonathan Croy as Watson, Ryan Winkles as a canny Scotsman; photo: Kevin Sprague
Jonathan Croy as Dr. Watson; photo: Kevin Sprague
"La Cumparsita" : McCabe as Cecile and Winkles as Sir Henry; photo: Kevin Sprague
The Hound of the Baskervilles plays through November 8 at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare and Company, located at 70 Kemble Street in Lenox. MA. Tickets range from $16-$48. For schedule and information, or to book tickets, contact the box office at 413-637-3353 or go to their website at www.shakespeare.org.