All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Its current production of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” suggests it’s presenting a version of the mystery Arthur Conan Doyle wrote to reintroduce his iconic detective Sherlock Holmes after Holmes was supposedly killed in a fight to the death with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls.
Conan Doyle resurrected Holmes by popular demand, and whether portrayed by Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch, or Robert Downey, Jr., Holmes’s popularity has not faded.
So, “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is a good choice to attract some Holmes fans.
Not so fast.
The concurrent show at the Lantern is a broad farce loaded with slickly executed shtick, sight gags, costume changes, Sid Caesar dialects, and lightning fast pacing. Damon Bonetti, Daniel Fredrick, and Dave Johnson are so sharp and precise with their non-ending gambits, they can earn jobs as Harmonia Gardens waiters in “Hello Dolly!.” The teamwork and invention among the trio, abetted by Matt Pfeiffer’s pinpoint direction, is admirable and funny.
But misplaced. Terribly, terribly, fatally misplaced.
No mystery appears on the Lantern stage no matter how often Sherlock Holmes appears or the rudiments of Conan Doyle’s well-crafted story of murder on the British moors serve as a basis for Pfeiffer’s tomfoolery.
The Lantern troupe not only tosses Conan Doyle’s baby out with the bathwater. They miscarry. Never does there seem to be the slightest intention to make “The Hound of the Baskervilles” suspenseful or to engage audience curiosity about why members of the Baskerville family are disappearing via the expected savagery of huge, red-eyed behemoth of a rampant canine. Rarely are clues presented, and never do they matter.
Pfeiffer and company have decided to turn “The Hound of the Baskervilles” into a vaudeville romp and remain content with only doing Alphonse-Gaston routines in a collection of wigs and beards..
You have to decide what you want to see. If your expectation is a Sherlock Holmes mystery, filled with intrigue, subtly laid clues, layer of tension, and an air of anticipation, this is not the production for you. Though Lantern calls its show, “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and gives Sir Arthur Conan Doyle credit over its show’s adapters, Steven Canny and John Nicholson, it disrespects Sherlock Holmes and the mystery genre to such an extent, it may as well call the opus, “Getting Gertie’s Garters” or “A Romp in Drag in Fog with Accents.”
Pfeiffer does not know where to quit or how to control himself from ladling on the comedy to approach a Sherlock Holmes tale with any authentic feeling for his subject or its tradition.
Conan Doyle includes comedy in his stories. Dr. Watson is a comic foil of sorts to Holmes, The Victorian details and trappings that may have seemed so mundane when Conan Doyle published leave themselves open to contemporary mocking and parody, but to quote a character, Aslaksen, from Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” all needs to be done with moderation. A little of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” should be allowed to be viewed, if only through a keyhole, to give a production with that name credence and credibility.
Lantern’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” does not leave room for genuine plot or anticipation. It, along with Canny and Nicholson, blithely borrows a title, some characters, a plot sketch, and the drawing power of Sherlock Holmes, and it bastardizes Conan Doyle to any extent it wants, secure perhaps that the deftness and quality of the tight, well-played farce Pfeiffer and company serve in such generous doses will earn enough laughs and give enough pleasure to salvage the day.
To that I say, bosh, tosh, and out with the trosh!
Parody is one thing. Conan Doyle’s style of prose almost invites it. Lampoon is another. Sherlock Holmes is known enough a commodity to take a “Carol Burnett Show” drubbing and come out ticking. (Notice Burnett and her writers always respected the original material and accentuated its high points.) Travesty is the last straw. It shows no regard for the original material and makes hay of it as it will.
The Lantern’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is a travesty. Pfeiffer, Bonetti, Fredrick, and Johnson show no love or esteem towards their models, Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. For them, it’s just fodder around which to build a farce.
They are so successful at doing that, it’s difficult to tell if adapters Canny and Nicholson intended a romp for romp’s sake, or if, as Patrick Barlow does with his adaptation of John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps,” they include some homage and deference to their models that Pfeiffer and his Stooges gleefully obliterate with a steamroller.
On one genuine level, Bonetti, Fredrick, and Johnson, especially Fredrick, have to be admired for their comic acuity. On another, they and Pfeiffer earn excoriation for willfully corrupting a classic work they never intended to approach seriously or treat with integrity.
I’m veering from one of my usual tenets here. I have always been one that says production is more important than text because production equals theater while text equals literature. I believe in giving directors latitude to adapt and play and create something different from the conventional or expected. I especially like jokes. I always tell people my favorite dwarf is Silly, one who doesn’t quite make it to Snow White’s story. A smart send-up of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” a story I know well because to complete my nerd badge, I am a Holmes aficionado, would tickle me. Silly would be in his glory.
I know this because in March, Ken Ludwig’s farcical take on “The Hound of the Baskervilles” called “Baskerville” came to Princeton’s McCarter Theatre from D.C.’s Arena Stage and was a total delight because of how well and respectfully it melded Conan Doyle’s story with the farcical elements Barlow and his original director, Maria Aitken, introduced in “The 39 Steps.”
Ludwig showed a secure hand at preserving mystery and suspense while providing a rollicking comedy. Ludwig spoofed and parodied, but he did not stab Sherlock Holmes in the back, punch Sir Arthur in the teeth, or abscond with his public domain plot to make a mockery of it, as Lantern makes one think Steven Canny and John Nicholson do.
Ludwig’s work, which will be visible in Philadelphia this fall as the Philadelphia Theatre Company include Amanda Dehnert’s laudable McCarter/Arena staging on its subscription roster for November. It’s a fitting occasion to compare a careful, assured, but bedeviling touch with the hammy, inconsiderate approach taken by Pfeiffer. (Please visit http://wp.me/p3S9A9-CXe for a NealsPaper review of “Baskerville.”)
Pfeiffer gave signs he might not care much for limits — I know. Look who’s talking. Or writing. — when he directed “The 39 Steps” for Theatre Horizon in 2014. Though that production threw generous bones to Buchan, Barlow, and Alfred Hitchcock, it was overloaded. Pfeiffer seemed intent to include anything he or his cast, which included Damon Bonetti as Richard Hannay, thought of to add. Consequently, his production was not as taut as Aitken’s, and his “39 Steps” slightly less satisfying. But it resonated. Entertainment prevailed, Enough of the intrinsic suspense in “The 39 Steps” came through, and Horizon had a praiseworthy hit.
“The 39 Steps,” is after all the culprit. Its cleverness and success paves the way for imitators who want to take the same tack and wrap a mystery in a non-stop, gag-riddled farce.
The problem is you need Aitken’s, or Dehnert’s, deft hand and regard for all the elements with which she’s working, suspense and farce, for all to emerge felicitously.
That happened marginally in Pfeiffer’s “The 39 Steps.” It doesn’t occur at all in his staging of Canny and Nicholson’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles”
Vaudeville chases “Baskerville” off the field, and shtick takes over. Totally and fully.
That finally brings up the companion show on the Lantern stage, a Victorian-based cavalcade of puns, accents, impressions, sleight of hand, and oodles of physical comedy that elicit legitimate laughs on their own as comic bits but that don’t show even nodding attention to “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
I’m naysayer and spoilsport enough in pretty much despising what Pfeiffer did with “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
To me, taste was too breached to be excused. If Lantern and Pfeiffer wanted to do a romp, it should have looked for a script or title that has no tradition, no inherent demands to be just a little faithful to the original in intent, and gone with that.
That they chose “The Hound of the Baskervilles” earns my disdain, partially because I was disappointed and partially because I became bored with a perpetuated comedy routine that had no matter in it and lost its variety before the performance concluded.
No matter, but lots of method.
Pots and pots of method.
And method that, on the most elemental level, worked.
There’s the rub. In spite of my disappointment, disapproval, and sporadic boredom, I saw that Bonetti, Fredrick, and Johnson were skilled farceurs who knew what they were doing and pulling it off hilariously, The quick-paced re-enactment of everything that takes place in the first act begins the second, and it’s lovely. And funny.
Some things were funny in concept, like Bonetti appearing as the exotic and anxious Beryl Stapleton, but don’t maintain their comic effect once the sight gag had had its moment. Others, like Fredrick being oblivious to danger as various doomed Baskervilles, work all the time. Lambs and pigs in a big also tickled the Silly bone.
In general, whether Bonetti is changing from frocks as Miss Stapleton to camouflage as Holmes or Johnson is brandishing Dr. Watson’s gun with the hair-trigger carelessness of a teenager showing off the family firearm, bits work. Bonetti, Fredrick, and Johnson are so attuned with each other, inane verbal byplay that would usually cause eyes to roll and yawns to emerge come off as crisp and fresh.
That’s a major difference between the Lantern’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s current “Murder for Two.” Pfeiffer’s production remains sharp and smartly timed throughout while I fear “Murder for Two” was marred by being in production for too long and in need of honing to restore it to a level that earned it acclaim in New York, by others in Philadelphia, and around the country.
So you have a dilemma. Theatrically, Pfeiffer’s “Hound of the Baskervilles” had some merit. It fulfills all intentions from a comic point of view.
As a total work, it doesn’t make the grade because it has no core, no purpose beyond orchestrated folderol. I reiterate I was often bored, and my reaction to the comedy was more like a writer’s, saying silently to myself, “That’s good. That works,’ than like a fan’s. Lambs in bags or not, I was rarely being moved to laugh out loud (and I’m a laugher). But I appreciated what was happening on stage for what it was.
If your taste runs towards taking in a comedy for comedy’s sake, the Lantern “Hound of the Baskerville” might be your ticket.
I am in such a minority in regard to Pfeiffer’s production and “Murder for Two,” I am inclined to see them both again. For now, I have to accentuate the negative. Because both productions made me angry and concerned for the state of theater as well as disappointed.
As “The 39 Steps” and Ludwig’s “Baskerville” prove, suspense can holds its own within a predominance of comedy. Finding that no attention was given to Conan Doyle set me against “The Hound of the Baskervilles” from its beginning. I saw that Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes were just to be jokes that save Canny and Nicholson from thinking of a plot (or Pfeiffer from having to marry mystery and farce).
As entertaining as “The Hound of the Baskerville” can be as a vaudeville, it fails to meet certain standards of quality. Its juvenile delinquency and willful negligence of the story at hand cannot be excused.
I know I’m nearly alone in not recommending this piece, but someone has to protect dead writers who can’t speak for themselves. On behalf of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I have to say to Pfeiffer and company, thanks for nothing.
Meghan Jones’s shard of a playing space, that resembled a set of a Victorian theater, may have been the most successfully witty element of this production. Dale Roth Nadel deserves kudo for the props. Julia Poiesz’s costume made the quick changes fun.
“The Hound of the Baskervilles” runs through Sunday, June 28, at the Lantern Theater, in St. Stephen’s Church, 10th and Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, June 20; Wednesday, June 24; and Sundays June 21 and 28. A 7 p.m. performance for Sunday, June 28, has recently been added to the schedule. Tickets range from $39 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-829-0395 or by visiting www.lanterntheater.org.