This farcical stage version of the classic Sherlock Holmes novel teems with physical humor and visual gags while retaining the basic storyline of the complex original version.
The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Steven Canny and John Nicholson. Directed by Thomas Derrah. Presented by Central Square Theater, at Central Square Theater, Cambridge, MA, through August 22.
Reviewed By Alyssa Machado
Steven Canny and John Nicholson’s spoof of Hound of the Baskervilles, the classic Sherlock Holmes novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, distills the characters and plot to their most basic humorous qualities, exaggerates those qualities tenfold, and tasks three actors to tackle 16 roles at breakneck speed to tell the tale of the murderous hellhound of the great Grimpen Mire. The methods are familiar comedy and farce standards (crossdressing, physical gags, gay innuendo), but the execution, timing, and silly self-awareness of Central Square Theater’s production make the Devonshire moor an amusing place to visit for the evening . . . if you dare.
Canny and Nicholson pack this version with physical humor and visual gags while retaining the basic storyline of the complex original version. The action proceeds so pell-mell that those who aren’t familiar with the tale might find the plot confusing at times, but events serve mostly as opportunities for antics anyway. Those antics are ably and energetically executed by the three-person cast, Remo Airaldi (Sherlock Holmes), Bill Mootos (Dr. Watson), and Trent Mills (Sir Henry Baskerville).
Dr. Watson features more prominently in the story than Sherlock Holmes. As a result, Bill Mootos, an endearing, earnest, and eager puppy of a Watson, plays the least amount of other characters and anchors the action. Much as as Watson serves as Holmes’s “torch,” inspiring his brilliant deductions, Mootos partners the other two actors adeptly, inspiring hilarity as their comic foil as well as with his own well-timed, exaggerated facial expressions.
Remo Airaldi, a member of the American Repertory Theatre’s Resident Acting Company, handles quick costume changes with ease, but occasionally he doesn’t enunciate. His Sherlock Holmes, although appropriately calm and deadpan, leaves less of an impression than the more exaggerated minor characters he plays, especially Miss Stapleton, the Peruvian woman who falls for Baskerville. In a dress and braided pigtails, Airaldi remains straight-faced and fully committed to everything from babbling gibberish language to a hilarious romantic tango dream sequence, wisely allowing the full effect of the visual incongruity to undulate for itself.
The third member of the trio, Trent Mills, portrays Baskerville and most of the incidental characters. Few differences exist between his minor characters except for costumes and accents, but he isn’t afraid to be silly, which makes him fun to watch. His charming and frequently oblivious, “gee whiz,” Yankee-boy version of Henry matches well with Mootos’s similarly unaware Watson.
The silly self-awareness of the show adds to its appeal, and it includes the audience in the joke by delighting in its deliberately low-tech staging. During scenes, actors frequently break the fourth wall to jest about fake-looking props (plastic food glued to a plate) or their set changing responsibilities (“as soon as I’ve taken down the bed”).
The designers also embrace the self-aware, light-hearted mood while keeping everything functional. Carlos Aguilar, the scenic designer, created an adaptable set with only a few set pieces, two-dimensional rocks and a moveable, framed (with a mini proscenium arch), room-sized platform with rotating, vertical scenic panels on each side. These pieces make transitions as easily and quickly as the actors do and transform into everything from the spooky moor to Baskerville’s estate.
Aguilar facilitates the fast pace of the show by enabling the actors to make changes as the action proceeds by flipping the side panels, hiding behind and moving the rocks, and adding creative set pieces like curved shower rod with bedsheets that hangs on a panel to make a vertical bed. Similarly, Nathan Leigh, the sound designer, chose a wonderful mix of ominous, creepy effects and music (such as the chilling hound howl) to set the mood and more cartoony noises (like the sucking and popping sound when characters are pulled out of mud) to amplify the comedy.
Unfortunately, the playwrights take the self-awareness too far by inserting an awkward subplot where the actors stop the show and portray themselves as the actors, threatened by mysterious events in the theater. This jarring interruption at the end of the first act throttles the building momentum, doesn’t add anything to the main tale, and isn’t particularly funny. Thankfully, although inexplicably for anyone wanting a resolution to the subplot, the play sticks to the much funnier Holmes story for the rest of the performance.
Hound of the Baskervilles appears deceptively simple at first glance, a typical spoof with standard theater gags. But the demands of this kind of buffoonery are stringent — without actor chemistry, perfectly timed and blocked hectic scenes, and inventive costume changes the proceedings could easily degenerate into an unfunny mess. Luckily for fans of broad comedy, the talented team at Central Square Theater make the difficult task of pulling off this frenetic farce look, as Sherlock Holmes would say, elementary.