Comic ‘Baskervilles’ a howling success at Northern Stage

Season_Poster-MaryPoppins-OUTPUT.inddBy David Lampe-Wilson
©2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

White River Junction’s Northern Stage serves up a huge helping of British silliness with The Hound of the Baskervilles, the 2007 comic adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes novel.

This featherbrained adaptation by Steven Canny and John Nicholson has a lot going for it, but your enjoyment depends entirely on your tolerance for the idiotic; this two-plus hours production mines a lode of comic tropes — slapstick, groaning puns, knockabout farce, crossdressing and balmy banter.

While the play follows the classic storyline of an aristocratic family cursed by the appearance of a spectral hound that kills each generation’s male heir, the play’s 16 characters are acted out by three male actors who careen on and off stage to don a host of costumes and to limn a variety of over-the-top characters.

Act I is complicated and convoluted and, because of that, never hits a high comic stride. However, the playwrights are aware of Act I’s failings and acknowledge them at the top of Act II, repeating Act I at a breakneck pace. From that point on, the pace is manic and the laughs come fast and furious.

As with the novel, the play follows Sherlock Holmes’ colleague, Dr. John Watson, as he accompanies the latest Baskerville heir to fog-bound Dartmoor where the wind howls, the fog blooms and danger lurks behind every boulder. Watson, as written for this play, is as dim as the one played by Nigel Bruce in the 1940s movies. Here, played by Bill Kux, Watson anchors the play and Kux’s Watson is an adorable effete twit. Kux’s splendid comic timing and surefooted performance is a master class on witty acting and is a joy to behold.

Bill Kux, left, and Jacob Tischler during a rehearsal. Photos provided.

Bill Kux, left, and Jacob Tischler during a rehearsal. Photos provided.

Jacob Tischler is Sir Henry Baskerville (as well as his deceased ancestors). He also plays a very excitable actor named Jacob Tischler who breaks character in fear that there might just be a ghost haunting the theater. He also is a fine physical comedian who, as Baskerville, dances a crafty comic tango with Cecille Stapleton, a dance made more hilarious because it is performed with such deadpan sincerity.

Playing Cecille Stapleton is actor Thom Miller who, it should be explained, also plays the villainous neighbor Stapleton, the two housekeepers Mr. and Mrs. Barrymore, a hansom cab driver and the Great Detective himself, Sherlock Holmes. Miller’s energy appears to be endless as he exits stage left as Barrymore the bearded butler only to reenter stage right as Cecille Stapleton the Brazilian firecracker. One gets the sense that Miller is having the time of his life.

Director Peter Hackett has staged the proceedings with aplomb in a production rich with fine comic moments.

While the play runs on pure adrenalin, Hackett gives us some quiet visual delights — none better than a scene in which both Watson and Baskerville edge their individual ways along Baskerville Hall’s corridors.

The actors have their backs to the audience as they creep along with their hands feeling their way against walls that are merely suggested by stage lighting. It is a short, rewarding few seconds of theater magic that demonstrates Hackett’s attention to detail as well as his comic sensibilities.

Jokes that have fallen flat in other productions of this show or scenes that have smacked of embarrassingly ham-fisted homophobic humor (i.e., the steam room scene) here are treated as rollicking physical fun.

While Jordon Janola’s set design and Amy Sutton’s costumes serve the production well, it is Lighting Designer Stuart Duke and uncredited sound designers (We have word that that is Ben Montmagny) who do yeoman’s work in providing both atmosphere and laughs.

In a production fraught with complicated entrances and exits, quick changes and quirky rumblings, it is little wonder that the backstage crew are brought onstage to take the final bow along with the rest of the cast.

If you are looking for some good giggles and hardy guffaws, The Hound of the Baskervilles is splendidly silly fun suitable for the entire family.

The Hound of the Baskervilles continues through Saturday, March 12 at Northern Stage, The Barrette Center for the Arts, 74 Gates St., White River Junction. Performances: Wednesday through Sunday; additional matinees on Wednesday and Thursday. For tickets and information click here or call 802-291-9009.

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About the Author: After 30 years as a theater critic and arts editor for a Connecticut daily newspaper, David Lampe-Wilson transplanted to Vermont with his wife and two cats.

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