You knew right away — from the opening lines, in fact — that this version of Sherlock Holmes was going to produce a delightfully delicious evening.
When the usual Portland Stage Company official did not come out to welcome the crowd and thank sponsors — leaving the task instead to the play’s three actors (who were already on stage) — it was clear this was not your father’s, or your book club’s, version of the famed sleuth.
What this Sherlock-on-the-Fore offers is the same essential plot of Conan Doyle’s original, fitted into a spoof of Herculean proportions by the Emperor of BBC Comedy, multiple award winner Steven Canny, and his most capable batman, John Nicholson.
Those two, part of the company Peepolykus (people like us), have set up a framework around the traditional story which then unleashes three actors into their main roles, as well as a seemingly bottomless well of supporting characters. Daniel Burson directs in what could only have been a task of distraction to get through the laughs of daily rehearsals.
This play, which Portland Stage executive and artistic director Anita Stewart noted as the “reimagining of a classical mystery,” has become a classic onto itself since its inception nearly a decade ago.
Indeed, this is no small task given the surge of interest in all things Sherlock, such as Benedict Cumberbatch’s hit BBC series, “Sherlock,” now in its sixth year, and the brand new popular take on CBS, “Elementary,” with Jonny Lee Miller.
And, as in the original, the date is 1901. The place, Dartmoor, England. The Baskerville family is threatened by a ferocious beast, possibly a hound yet much larger than normal, which kills any family member who comes to live at the Baskerville estate. The hound takes his latest victim, Sir Charles Baskerville.
His nephew, Henry (Steven Strafford), the new heir, is set to move in. Of course, this case is brought to the attention of the famous Sherlock Holmes (Dustin Tucker), who takes it on. He dispatches Dr. Watson (Ryan Farley) to the moors, and well, the fun begins.
What follows is a dizzying blur of our three actors not only thriving in the prime roles, but also assuming more than a dozen characters in a tsunami of machine-gun dialogue, set changes that left us guessing what could possibly come next, and more costumes and shifts than you can shake a stick at.
Importantly, in this play, by design, there was no fourth wall. Farley, Tucker, and Strafford not only played this spoof of the genre to the hilt, but also took great delight throughout the evening in lampooning the theatre world, especially small-time, low-budget troupes.
They constantly spoke to the audience, referring to their technical acting as opposed to the story – a stream of interaction that delighted the rest of us in the shadows, drawing us further into the laughs and ensuing tears.
The brilliant writing was made vibrant and real by peerless acting from the three Thespians – especially in dialogue and extreme physical comedy. To single out Farley, Tucker, or Strafford would be yet another crime to lay on Sherlock’s magnifying glass. They not only Yinged each other’s Yang, but along the way sucked us right in to their chamber of guffaws and unabashed fun.
The show’s crew also deserves a standing ovation. Portland Stage has some of the most surrealistically austere sets on the national scene, no doubt inspired by Ms. Stewart’s keen eye for, and background in, all things architectural.
As such, Meg Anderson produced a pinpoint modularity in the dozens of set changes that fit perfectly into the show’s multiple characters, locations, and frenetic pace. Her set was a 500-piece puzzle assembled in the time it takes to put together a 50-piece set.
The same can be said for the cleverly constructed period costumes by Kathleen Brown, whose eye for detail contributed to subtle satirical tilts in the outfits.
Lights by Stephen Jones hit marks like clockwork, as did sound by Chris Fitze – who delighted us all with echoes of action emphasis from both the classic Batman series, as well as the trademark two-note Law and Order scene change herald.
Finally, Stage manager Shane Van Vliet and the crew had to have been just as exhausted as the three players, given the tempo and number of characters to manage – bravo to the folks in all-black: mostly unseen but oh-so-vital to this play.
Please do not look deeply for arcane themes. Here, on Forest Ave. in downtown Portland, as well as the English moors, we are instead presented with an unabashed, in-your-face call not to take ourselves too seriously. As such, it makes us look in the mirror to see the fool within.
Every season, the jewel of Maine’s theatre life offers up at least one solid comedy – shows that are laughable yet intelligent, and which speak to the inherently mortal thread woven into the fabric of our lives: if we can’t poke fun at ourselves, then what exactly is our reason for being?
To that end, the entire cast and crew at Portland Stage have done well in their task to echo the inane yet incisive satire which can be found in works from Aristophanes to Plautus and beyond, traditions which reach back several millennia in our creative consciousness.
And in doing so, they scream out to us that we must go see this play.
Yet perhaps more importantly, Ms. Stewart’s worthy troupe keeps alive a legacy handed down to contemporary humorists of all persuasions – a flame burning brightly on the stage of that most human arena, the theatre of the absurd.
“The Hound of The Baskervilles” runs through February 21 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave, Portland. Tickets and info call: 207-774-0465 or visit: http://www.portlandstage.org/
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).
Stage Names is the theatre review segment of From The Stacks.
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