‘Hound’ actors revel in over-the-top comedy

01/19/2013 10:46 PM

05/16/2014 8:50 PM

So let’s say you’ve had a hard week at the office — assuming you have an office to go to.

Or maybe you’ve been reading too much about our dysfunctional political system or absorbing too much news about the shaky economy. Perhaps you’ve been losing sleeping worrying about climate change or overpopulation or the chances of an asteroid hitting the planet.

How to calm down? Well, there’s alcohol, of course. Or a prescription for anti-depressants. And then there’s pure escapism, of which there’s no better example at the moment than two hours of unremitting silliness on the stage of American Heartland Theatre.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic mystery-horror tale, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” has been recast by writers Steven Canny and John Nicholson as a strictly-for-laughs romp that owes more to vaudeville than the traditions of detective fiction. The play was written to be performed by three actors playing multiple roles.

Director William J. Christie has found skilled performers to carry out the mission of this play — to get laughs at virtually any cost. John Wilson, Ken Remmert and Doogin Brown are easily up the task.

Wilson plays Sherlock Holmes and several other characters. Remmert inhabits Dr. Watson and another role. And Brown plays everyone else, including multiple generations of the Baskerville family. Apparently Christie told the actors that it was impossible to be too silly.

The results are most amusing, although the heightened farce doesn’t fully kick in until Act 2. Much of the production’s success stems directly from the efforts of the design team. Michael Benson’s scenic design is flexible and tricked out with ladders, platforms and a trap door that figures prominently into the final minutes of the show. The combination of Shane Rowse’s ever-shifting lighting plot and sound designer Donna Miller-Brown’s sound-effects and music cues allows the audience to be transported to a farcical neverland.

The basic story relates Holmes’ and Watson’s investigation of the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville out on the moors of Devonshire. They accompany the only surviving heir to the family name, Sir Henry Baskerville, who has recently arrived from Canada. Part of the presumed “curse of the Baskervilles” is the omnipresent threat posed by a murderous hellhound always on the lookout for his next victim.

We tend to think of Holmes as a dignified, erudite and cerebral, butWilson basically throws dignity out the window and surrenders to the ham that resides in every actor’s soul. Remmert’s Watson is a perpetually befuddled character who sometimes solves mysteries by accident. Remmert is, of course, well-known for his ability to play comedy in the broadest imaginable way, and he and Wilson seem to be having a fine old time cavorting about the stage.

Neither of them quite rises to the level achieved by Brown, whose flexible facial features sometimes bring to mind Groucho Marx. The best actors are never afraid to appear utterly ridiculous and Brown does so with commitment. He produces some of the biggest laughs in the show. Where Brown gets his inspiration I cannot say, but his consistent inventiveness allows him to surprise us repeatedly.

The actors inserted a few well-placed ad libs in the Wednesday night performance, but never to the detriment of the show’s pacing. This brand of comedy is utterly reliant on timing and rhythm, which these actors deliver in calorie-burning performances.

Shannon Smith’s costumes make an important contribution and Christie, doing double duty, is credited with props and set dressing. In that role he gets to insert some very funny visual jokes.

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