Entertainment » Theatre

The Hound of the Baskervilles

by Christine Malcom
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Mar 8, 2016
Joel Thompson (Sherlock Holmes), Jon Patrick Penick, Nathan Pease (Dr. Watson), and Brian Bengston (Dr. Mortimer)
Joel Thompson (Sherlock Holmes), Jon Patrick Penick, Nathan Pease (Dr. Watson), and Brian Bengston (Dr. Mortimer)   

In his program notes for Idle Muse Theatre Company's production of "Hound of the Baskervilles," director Evan Jackson focuses on the social context of this particular Holmes adventure, set against the backdrop of the first of the Ripper murders.

On the surface, this emphasis seems at odds with the text, which is at its best when it delves productively into the Holmes/Watson relationship. Taken as a whole, though, this new adaptation by Althos Low (the pen name, in this case, for Shanghai Low Theatricals' Steve Pickering with input from Fred Baxter and Tom Kyziavat), married to strong performances, strikes a satisfying balance between the personal and the political.

Although the brand, spanking new Edge Theatre in Edgewater is a beautiful space, in some ways, the traditional proscenium stage works at cross-purposes to this show. The bulk of the stage itself is devoted to the flat at 221B Baker Street for the opening scene, by far the longest in the play. With a few well-chosen furniture pieces and a rolling doorway to emphasize Mrs. Hudson's role as gatekeeper, Scenic Designer Laura Wiley's work is quite functional.

Once the action moves out of the flat, though, the staging is occasionally awkward. Upstage right and left, real estate on a fairly small footprint is given over to two platforms, one high and one low, to represent smaller private spaces like Watson's room at Baskerville Hall or the cab from which the villain pursues Sir Henry Baskerville in disguise. Both creak loudly enough to challenge the actors voices, calling the design choice into question.

For the not infrequent chase scenes, Jackson simply has the actors exit and re-enter after a beat. This works well enough, and in most cases, imparts a bit of the flavor of the 1940s Basil Rathbone movies. The device is a bit hard on the drama during the play's climax, though, complicated as it is by the complex puppet apparatus (also designed by Althos Low), which required low lights and two actors to man it. The red-eyed monster was decidedly creepy and it's impressive that the visual worked as well as it did, given how crowded the stage ends up at that moment in the play.

Whatever minor missteps might have made in the scenic design, though, the overall look of the show is solid. From the fussy wallpaper that lets the audience know immediately that they've returned to the flat, to the hazy skies over the moors, Wiley's lighting and projections keep the show moving briskly while leaving no question where a particular scene is set. Erin Gallagher's costumes also deserve special mention for their visual appeal and the fact that they capture the essence of each main character and signal at a glance when an ensemble member has switched roles.

Joel Thompson and Nathan Pease as Holmes and Watson, respectively, make not only the individual roles wholly their own, but embrace the adaptation's unique take on their relationship. Pease is a more damaged Watson than we usually see, and one who struggles openly to make his way in the world as a doctor, a former soldier, a writer, and something more than just a sidekick to Holmes. The liberties that the the adapters take with the story rest on the actor's capable shoulders and what's been added, what's been removed and what's been transformed in this telling are not just believable, the story and the characters are enriched by it.

For his part, Thompson never shies away from Holmes' insufferable perfection and tendency toward emotional tone-deafness, yet the great detective never reads as unfeeling. Rather, the audience is left with the sense that even with an irrefutable solution in hand, he's baffled by the world's cruelty and ugliness.

As Dr. Mortimer, Briant Bengtson's cheerful, gregarious performance evokes more tried and true portrayals of Watson. Similarly, Jon Patrick Penick's villainous Stapleton is as cool and detached an observer as many a rendition of Holmes. Together, the two serve as externalized aspects of the main duo's personalities, giving the show life beyond the final curtain call.

Conan Doyle is not exactly known for the strength (or even presence) of his female characters, but here, adaptation and actors alike leave their stamp on the story. Elizabeth C. MacDougald keeps a flicker of defiance burning in her performance as Beryl Stapleton, and the consignment of her romance with Sir Henry to "requisite romance" in Watson's version serves the character even as it cuts her stage time. Laura Jones Macknin not only plays an active, impressive Mrs. Hudson, she also steps into the role of Mrs. Frankland (Mr. Frankland in the original story) with skill and authority, carving out a memorable scene reflecting on war with Watson.

"The Hound of the Baskervilles" runs through April 3 at Edge Theatre, 5451 N. Broadway, Chicago. For tickets or information, call 773-340-9438 or visit www.IdleMuse.org

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.


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