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Farcical “Hounds of the Baskervilles” at Actors’ Summit

Roy Berko

Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle

There’s a moor, a diabolical hound, a maiden, a man who dies of a heart attack (well, maybe), a butler who carries around a tray of plastic food and wears an obvious fake beard, an attempt to perform CPR on an obvious stuffed dummy, men in a sauna wearing towels over their suits, men dressed as women, and lots of doors slamming.

Then there’s Sir Henry, the last of the Baskervilles (well, maybe).  Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion, Dr. Watson, are brought in to protect Sir Henry, but bumble so badly at the start of the production, the play has to be started over.  Then there’s a series of tweets about the play, while it is going on, requiring the cast to redo the entire show to prove its not as outlandish as the tweet indicated.

Yes, Actors’ Summit is staging a British farce entitled “Hound of the Baskervilles.”

The mystery novel “The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the third of his novels about the detective Sherlock Holmes.  It, like the play adaptation by Steven Canny and Frank Nicholson, takes place on Dartmoor in Devon, located in England’s West Country.  Like the play, the book tells of an attempted murder of the last in the line of Baskervilles, wealthy landowners.

Any resemblance between the serious tone of the book and the ridiculous staged version ends there.

Canny and Nicholson pull out all the stops to create a typical British farce, much in the vein of “The 39 Steps” and “Noises Off.”  They have three men playing fifteen parts, which results in lots of quick costume changes, males playing females, bad wigs and beards, maniacal changing of sets, ridiculous double entendres, the stretching of reality to its limits, and general exhausting chaos on both the parts of the actors and the audience.

British theatrical farces, commonly referred to as “foolish shows,” “mockeries,” or “ridiculous shams” can be very, very funny.  The difficulty is that to make them hilarious requires meticulous staging.   British and Canadian actors and directors have been trained to be sensitive to making over-exaggeration look natural and the real, a requirement for effective farce. Double takes, side glances, asides to the audience are all part of the farce lexicon. Think Monte Python.

Much of British humor is tongue-in-cheek.  This has also built a pattern for the presentation, as does the ability to play with the sound of British punctuation and the pitches of the voice.   These techniques do not come naturally to Americans.  Few U.S. playwrights use that type of humor.  Most, like Neil Simon, put their characters in real humorous situations, not preposterous ones.  Mel Brooks uses exaggeration, but not of the British variety.  American jokes tend to be self-deprecating or sexually laden.  Neither of these lend themselves to farce presentation.  It accounts to why Americans often “don’t get” British humor.

Accepting the difficulty of staging and acting in farce, the Actor’s Summit production of ‘Hound of the Baskervilles” is quite nice, especially considering I saw an early-in-the-run staging.  Farce tends to improve as the production goes on, as the timing becomes more crisp, adding to the folly.

Stuart Hoffman, who not only played Holmes, but four other males and two females, was properly staid as the great detective and humorous as Cecile Stapleton and Mrs. Barrymore.

Frank Jackman was on target as Watson and a local yokel.

Jim Fippin nicely carried much of the load with his six characterizations.

British accents, when used, were well done, the costume changes fun to watch, many of the shticks worked.  The numerous movements of set pieces slowed down the production and got monotonous.  Some other way of making the shifts would have helped so that there were not long pauses.

Capsule judgement: You have to go to Actors’ Summit to see “The Hounds of the Baskervilles” in the right state of mind.  Understand that this is not a “real” Sherlock Holmes mystery tale.  Be prepared to laugh, accept the outlandish, and groan at the ridiculousness.

For tickets to “Hound of the Baskervilles” which runs through December 21, 2014, call 330-374-7568 or go to