The process of translating clichés into high humor is a delicate one: Don’t take it far enough and it will feel forced, push it too hard and the results will seem stupid. Luckily for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, the able three actors assembled for a very tongue-in-cheek retelling of the Sherlock Holmes tale The Hound of the Baskervilles know their way around slapstick and shtick. Inventively staged by Michael Evan Haney, Hound is drawing big crowds to CSC’s Race Street theater during July and August when there’s not much on stage elsewhere. In fact, word of mouth has been so strong for this show that CSC has added Saturday matinees to accommodate audience demand for tickets.
Actors Jeremy Dubin, Nick Rose and Brent Vimtrup are more than a match for Steve Canny’s punning adaptation. Respectively they play distilled versions of the renowned detective, his dimwitted partner Dr. Watson and Sir Henry Baskerville, the naïve and likely victim of a “hound from hell,” whose baleful presence is repeatedly marked by a howling canine sound effect. But there are vastly more characters than these three — giving Dubin, Rose and Vimtrup the chance to ham it up with various costumes, wigs and accents and amplify the story. (They could not achieve their quick costume changes — sometimes hilariously abbreviated or obviously mashed up — without three behind-the-scenes assistants: Alice Flanders, Amy Witherby and Mary C. Woll who are so important in keeping the action moving that they take a curtain call.)
From the get-go, we are alerted that this will not be a straight-ahead stage version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary tale of fear and murder on the moor. Vimtrup enters the darkened stage — by the way, draped in clichéd red velvet and a predictable Victorian gilt proscenium (Andrew J. Hungerford is the scenic and lighting designer) — with a pair of glowing red eyes upstage. Resonating growls block his attempted escape to stage right then stage left, as he stares at something that’s incomprehensibly fearsome. Suddenly, the lights come up to normal and the other two actors enter with Rose insisting on making a droning announcement on behalf of management. When they return to the tale (Dubin’s Holmes does a “clap off” to switch the lighting back to the moody moor), it’s evident that we’re in for an evening of visual gags, puns and antics that require the low physical humor of the Three Stooges.
Dubin, in addition to the mercurial Holmes, plays a variety of villains, as well as a victimized woman with whom Vimtrup’s Sir Henry becomes love-struck. He’s especially good at goofy, wide-eyed innocence. He’s also a beleaguered horse-drawn cab driver, and with Rose they double as a pair of backcountry rubes. All three actors excel with the script’s verbal humor, and Rose is especially adept at the punning dialogue as well as making leaps of reason that Holmes demolishes despite their insight. There’s no need to be familiar with the tale’s plot in advance; in fact, the second act begins with a high-speed rehash, in case you came in late.
The bottom-line: Does all this high-energy frivolity work? That will depend on your tolerance for silliness. A little goes a long way for some people, but based on the appetite for CSC’s repeated success with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare as well as prolonged laughter and overheard intermission conversations, I’m guessing that this is just the cup of tea that summertime theatergoers will continue to line up for.
Haney is the Cincinnati Playhouse’s associate artistic director and one of Greater Cincinnati’s best stage directors. He has a solid credential with a similar show at the Playhouse’s Shelterhouse in 2008, Around the World in 80 Days, which he recreated for the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City later that year. Haney knows how to squeeze every ounce of entertainment out of a witty, laugh-inducing script. This is his debut with CSC, and it’s one that takes maximum advantage of his adept cast who appear to be having a ball with this production.
P.S. If The Hound of the Baskervilles is not the kind of theatrical entertainment that you expect from a company with Shakespeare in its name (or even if it is), rest assured that this hard-working group is prepared to serve your needs. Its late-summer “Shakespeare in the Park” gets underway this week with productions of The Tempest and Macbeth.
THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES , presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Aug. 12.