Monday, August 16, 2010

Howling along with the Hound of the Baskervilles

It's strange the way theatre has set about mocking itself and its means, isn't it. Or perhaps it's not so strange - the theatre has to grapple with the current culture, of course, and in the current culture, knowingness is all; our collective self-image no longer trades in the romantic, or even the heroic, but merely in the self-aware. The avatar of the age is the viewer who has already seen it all, and seen through it, too.

Enter The Hound of the Baskervilles, another romp through the narrative thickets of a naïve classic and the broad tropes of matinee melodrama. After such local hits as The 39 Steps, Hound feels a bit formulaic itself, frankly; I'm more than ready for a parody of this kind of show. But Hound is also frisky and fun as a post-modern puppy, for the most part, and it's blessed with a crack comic cast (at left, doubling and tripling in all the roles, as required) and very tight direction from Thomas Derrah (who's more on top of this particular case than even Sherlock Holmes, methinks).

It helps a bit that - dare I say this? - The Hound of the Baskervilles isn't all that good to begin with. Before you start baying at the moon yourselves, I should add that while I enjoy the character of Holmes - who doesn't like hanging out with drug-addicted homosexuals? - the stories in which he stars are . . . hmmm . . . how to put this . . . "usually a clumsy mess" sums it up rather nicely, I think. Hound is a particular howler - the writing seems even more arcanely flat-footed than usual (a sample: "I had hardly expected so dolichocephalic a skull or such well-marked supra-orbital development. Would you have any objection to my running my finger along your parietal fissure?"). And alas, this time Holmes is off the scene much of the time, and the plot only counts as a "mystery" because its structure is so convoluted. I'd take a random episode of Scooby-Doo (the apotheosis of this particular form) any day.

Hmmm. Maybe I'm undoing my own argument a bit here; perhaps parodying this stuff is the only way to put it over! And if Hound has no underlying themes or subtext of its own (unlike, say, Irma Vep), at least it's not looking down its nose at its source (like 39 Steps); it thinks Sherlock Holmes is a hoot, and in the end it's pretty much faithful to the text (although wasn't Laura Lyons AWOL? I confess I 'rested my eyes' here and there, so maybe I missed her).

At any rate, let's be grateful that this particular cast has such sharp comic chops. Lead Remo Airaldi (late of the ART) is an odd physical match for Holmes, and he doesn't really do a "characterization" (or even a parody of one), but he consistently brings to bear that squeaky comic pique that he brought to everything he did at Harvard, and that makes most of the jokes work in an almost abstract way. And once he's in drag (a particularly peculiar form of meta-drag this time, with a bowler and braids) he's really a scream. Meanwhile Bill Mootos makes a perfectly clueless foil as Watson, and talented newcomer Trent Mills clowns his way brilliantly through the wide, wacky supporting cast of Baskervilles, et. al. Plus the show is smartly designed, and there are witty music and sound (and costume!) effects, too. I confess I think an adult may feel that this Hound gets a little long in the tooth before it's over, but as a kid's show it's one of the best bets in town.