Saturday, December 07, 2013

Play: My Dear Watson

The Hound of the Baskervilles, Based on the Original Story by Arthur Conan Doyle, Adapted by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright, Directed by Allison Narver. Through December 15

This is a Rep production, top to bottom. You know that in this space I kvetch about how it is called the Seattle Rep, and then they bring in some successful company from elsewhere or a one-person show or puppets, for god's sake, and I opine how I'm not sure that it is living up to the Repertory in the name. However, this adaptation of the classic a Sherlock Holmes novel is both original and native top to bottom. Adapters Pichette and Wright are both actors whose work I've enjoyed, and I've appreciated director Narver's work as well. And the bulk of the capable and competent cast list use the winning phrase "was last seen at the Rep in..." and then lists some of the titles we've reviewed here.

In addition, this could be a play that could easily taken on the road and play with great success back east (take THAT, other Rep companies!). In the theater calender, this would be considered the "safe" holiday play - something you could bring the out-of-town in-laws to, and it pulls out all the stops for stagecraft and presentation. And, of course, the subject is well-known to everyone, as all have encountered Holmes to some degree or another through their years.

And Holmes is hot. We have the action-hero steampunk Holmes on the big screen. We have the sociopathic modern Holmes (US and UK varieties) on the little screen. We have numerous PBS-versions of Holmes still haunting the DVDs, and various other media adaptations. And we have the original texts of course. And of the Holmes stories, the best-known is probably the Hound of the Baskervilles, with its spooky moors and man-killing, glowing yeth hound. And while watching the play I kept referring back to the Basil Rathbone movie version, and I would not be alone.

So we have an extremely popular character in that character's well-known work. Do we call spoilers at this point? Do you have to say "The kids die" about Romeo and Juliet? Does Celine Deon's voice swell in song and you lean over and tell your seatmate "The ship sinks, you know."? But there are some differences between original and adaptation so let us call spoilers and be done with it. Some characters have evaporated, or have their roles taken up by others, and scenes occur that work in the play (they hold a dinner party for the locals to bring everyone onto the stage at once, for example), that are not necessary on the printed page. And it does change the story, but let me deal with the excellent actors, first.

Darragh Kennan is an excellent Holmes, fitting well within the various Holmesian hordes. His Holmes is smug, often haughty,but extremely competent. More than a touch OCD. He knows his tobaccos and accents but not his Shakespeare. He is often wrong. He makes mistakes. He is a much more human Holmes than the iconic version and Kennan plays up the self-satisfied, too-clever-by-half version of him well.

Andrew McGinn balances Holmes acerbic nature as the more welcoming, warmer, more human member of the partnership in Watson. Watson is a continual quandry in Holmesiana, is that he is a capable Doctor but often takes the back seat as the expository character, the one which Holmes reveals his thought process to, and thereby to us. As a result, he tends to come off as a bit of clod, while it is through Watson that we see Holmes in the first place. In Baskervilles, Holmes disappears for a good bit of the plot (part of the first act and almost the entirety of the second) and Watson soldiers on, collecting the clues and interacting with the locals on a level that a chilly Holmes never could.

Oddly, the character that steals the show (and there are several would-be thieves in the talented group), is Connor Toms (previously in Red) as the Canadian heir to Baskerville Hall, Sir Henry. Recently imported from the Great White, this adaption runs with the fish-out-of-water comedy throughout, the front-facing Sir Henry trying to shake hands with everyone, tip the servants, and insisting people call him "Hank". He runs into the very proper English with its stoopshouldered serving class and repressed emotions like a hurricane making landfall in Scotland.

I mentioned others engaged in stealing the show as well, both with main roles and as part of the ensemble. Rob Burgess as the horrified butler Barrymore. Marianne Owen as both Barrymore's wife and a wondrous turn as Mrs. Hudson, both tolerant and knowing where to draw the line with her famous tenants. Basil Harris as the Doctor who brings the case to Holmes and serves as an interesting mirror to Watson. Charles Leggett as the bad neighbor with a generations-long grudge, Quinn Franzen as the of-course-he's-a-bit-spotty butterfly hunter and Hana Lass as his slightly-psychic sister. Within the confines of the play, they have a bit more suspicion cast upon each in turn as Watson (and Holmes, when he appears fully) has to examine when dealing with a phosphorescent hound on the moors.

And here's the thing that offended at least one purest in our group - in removing a couple of characters from the book they messed with some of the plot, and ended up in a different final place than the novel. It is interesting, but given the shotgun approach to modern Holmes stories, it is perfectly permissible. But it does feel odd, given that so much is so right. And what bothered me that we got a "villains speech" at the end when the mastermind explains all, which doesn't feel right for Holmes as well. Holmes is the guy that gets it right, explains it all, pulls off the sheet to reveal the entire plan, and the culprit says "Ay, that's correct. It's a fair cop." Not here, and now, a week later, I'm still not sure about it.

The stagecraft, by the way, was the Rep at its best, filled with sliding walls and projected images. They choreograph a chase through Paddington Station that is positively brilliant, capturing the feeling and flavor through other members of the ensemble, sliding pillars, pirouetting staircases, and perfect timing. This is to handle something that theater handles badly, given its limitations - showing a chase which involves more than running from one side of the stage to the other.

So, Hound runs for another week, then must close, so you should order tickets. This was the first Sunday matinee I've been to in a long time where the main floor was sold out, and a friend who knew someone at the ticket office said there would be no rush (last-minute, cheap) tickets. It is popular show, well-down and well-presented, and sums up everything that Rep company is supposed to do for its audience. A very proper, Holmesian Christmas present, indeed.

More later,