nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
June 22, 2009
Batman may have Robin and Captain Kirk may have Spock, but long before these pop culture sidekicks appeared on the scene there was Dr. Watson—Sherlock Holmes's mild-mannered assistant in dozens of short stories and novels penned by Arthur Conan Doyle a century ago. Playwright John Patrick Bray has decided to focus on the amiable Dr. Watson rather than the aloof Mr. Holmes in Hound, a stylish reimagining of one of the Victorian dynamic duo's most famous cases.
The basic plot of Hound doesn't deviate much from its source material, Doyle's turn-of-the-last-century novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. The mystery involves the death of a rich landowner named Lord Baskerville, apparently at the maw of a demonic hellhound that is said to have haunted the moor around the family estate for generations. Dr. Mortimer, a mutual friend of Baskerville and Holmes, is concerned for the safety of the heir to the Baskerville estate, Sir Henry Baskerville, who has recently returned from America, and soon Holmes has sent Watson off to the English countryside for reconnaissance and to protect young Henry from harm until Holmes can arrive there himself.
Though Bray has chosen to feature Watson over Holmes, he has kept the famous characters largely recognizable and their relationship intact. He also generally follows Doyle's basic plot from the novel, though he has refocused certain elements to reflect more modern sensibilities and social concerns—particularly victimization and class conflict. Bray has thrown in some fanciful elements as well—such as dogs that talk whom only Watson can hear—to create not so much a radical reinvention of the famous pair, but rather a thoughtful and well-crafted re-examination that uses, but isn't constrained by, preconceived ideas of what a Sherlock Holmes mystery or a period murder mystery is supposed to be.
The job of pushing the envelope instead falls to director Rachel Klein, whose stylized production turns Victorian England into a boldly colorful and surreal world. With a sparse production with no set to speak of, Klein has used this sparseness to spotlight larger-than-life characters and purposely outrageous performances. The diverse energies of this talented and variegated cast are woven into a kooky rogue's gallery that inhabits a bizarre alternate universe: some notable examples of this are Ryan Knowles's David Bowie-esque interpretation of Holmes, Blaine Peltier's uproariously eccentric Stapleton, Meredith Dillard's caustic embodiment of the lower classes as Mrs. Hudson and Mrs. Barrymore, and Alyssa Schroeter's portrayal of the title hound and two other canines throughout the tale. Klein has highlighted these performances and others with similarly gaudy and stylized costumes, and it all adds up to a surprisingly cohesive whole that is kept from spinning out of control by Bray's tight script, Klein's skillful direction, and an all-around solid cast.
What also binds the show together is Bray's portrait of Watson, played with subtle skill by Cavan Hallman. Hallman's restrained performance offsets Watson from the rest of the cavalcade in a way that brings depth to the piece as whole: as a man wounded by tragedy he comes off as a man unable to fully enter into the lusty and vibrant world around him.
In the end, Hound amounts to great theatrical fun. For those unfamiliar with the original story or the many subsequent adaptations, Hound offers a swift-moving and well-executed theatrical thriller. For those Sherlock Holmes fans out there, Hound offers a vibrant new take on the series—one in which Watson, after more than a century, finally gets his due.