Despite some classic French farce door-slamming and Monty Python drag antics, don’t expect a lot of belly laughs from The Forum’s quirky comic take on Sherlock Holmes’ classic “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
The show is a 1996 satirical adaptation by Steven Canny and John Nicholson for the British Peepolykus (pronounced “people like us”) theatrical troupe, and it’s a sophisticated, literate romp more suitable to raising smiles and chuckles than causing audiences to roll on the floor with guffaws.
It’s absurd and silly, but it’s not really outrageous. It aspires to be “Spamalot” or “Young Frankenstein,” but it’s closer to the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s famous condensed spoofs or the gothic “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”
Director Karen Robu keeps her able, adept cast pushing right up to the line of hilarity, but never quite making it over the top. It sometimes seems a little too smart for its own good as it stays faithful to the “Baskervilles” plot line about a murderous villain unleashing a monstrous hound from hell to scare his victims to death (which is pretty silly in itself).
It relies a lot on clever word play, including a run of puns like “that’s ast-hound-ing” and “let me get the labra-door for you.” And it relies on subtle sight gags like a wandering eye patch on one character that’s different from scene to scene. The wit is sometimes a bit dry, making the show fun rather than funny.
But the strength and, ultimately, the enjoyment come from the well-developed and distinctly delineated performances Robu has coaxed from her cast: a trio of guys who take all dozen or so roles – including women – through quick changes of costume and accent.
Ray Wills plays a full-of-himself Sherlock Holmes, who is deliciously condescending to his assistant, the loyal but somewhat dim Dr. Watson, played with teddy bear charm by Caleb Coffman. Ted Dvorak is upper-class twit Sir Henry Baskerville, the last heir of the family cursed by the mysterious titular canine.
Wills, in chirpy Monty Python mode, also flounces through occasionally in a scarlet gown as the flighty, flirtatious Cecile hiding coyly behind her fan, or shuffles around in black as gloomy Mrs. Barrymore, caretaker with her husband of the Baskerville estate.
In addition to Sir Henry, Dvorak stalks around as the eccentric and tweedy Dr. Mortimer, who is the resident expert on the Baskerville family curse. Dvorak also slaps on a straw hat to play a couple of the local yokels.
And Coffman, despite a turn as a walk-on townsperson, has his hands full – sometimes literally – as long-suffering, put-upon Watson servicing all the various incarnations of his two fellow actors.
All three also get to play a spoof version of themselves as egocentric actors playing the roles, sort of a play within a play. They break character occasionally to complain about something or, in Wills’ case, berate an audience member who supposedly tweeted during the first act that he was dragging the pace down. To prove that it’s not him, Wills insists on performing the whole first act again – this time at warp speed. So there.
Wills, a Broadway veteran in real life, has great comic timing plus a variety of vocal accents and inflections to toy with for his various characters. But his playing “himself” as a full-on drama queen is a little hard to believe, although fun to watch.
Dvorak, who has international opera experience, doesn’t get much mileage out of “himself” as a music diva – mainly because he never sings to demonstrate his voice. But he’s got a colorful repertoire of accents for his various characters (like his Scottish cabbie). And he’s fearless about dropping his pants on stage.
Coffman as the dependable Watson provides the steady base to anchor all the shenanigans, and his self-deprecating “himself” is eminently likable, even if, as he admits, he doesn’t have enough experience to be “esteemed” like his two colleagues.
While “Hound” is not a musical, Forum music director Paul Jackson enhances the production with original piano music he composed and plays to underscore the shifting mysterious moods.
The elegant set by Ben Juhnke – purple and gold two-story proscenium with purple curtains – looks just like a classic British theater (although more deco than Victorian). And the period British costumes by Kathryn Page Hauptman are beautifully detailed and complete, despite the quick changes.
Tyler Lessin’s lighting design was appropriately shadowy and moody, enhancing the richness of the set, and Joe McCormick’s sound, including numerous effects like eerie howling over the moors, was spot on.