PLAYING FOR EFFECT The Public Theatre's Hounding cast.
A certain kind of farce distinguishes itself among theatrical forms much as pigs distinguish themselves among the farm animals: by its fondness for playing in the mud, by its grinning, no-nonsense intelligence, and by the tasty saltiness with which it is often served. To be clear, no actual hogs make an appearance in the farcified remake of The Hound of the Baskervilles, playing at the Public Theatre. However, the show frolics in rich comic muck of puns, farts, men in drag, and men mouthing long sequences of squishy sounds; it cannily and gleefully sends up its own theatrical conventions; and it salts the mood liberally with myriad boob sight-gags and fellated-pony jokes. In short, this adaptation, by Steven Canny and John Nicholson, is not your Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes mystery, nor even your Robert Downey Jr.'s. Rather, this Hound serves its tale of murder on the moors firmly in the spirit of Monty Python, and under the direction of Janet Mitchko, it wallows in that spirit with gusto.
The mystery itself hasn't changed much: When Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead on the moor outside his estate, Holmes (Michael Frederic) and Watson (J. T. O'Connor) have to figure out whether the culprit was indeed the spectral hound of gory Baskerville lore, or a more mortal killer — and whether that killer now threatens the heir to the estate, Sir Henry (Dan Matisa). Possible suspects include the strange house servant, Barrymore, played by Frederic; Barrymore's wife, played by Frederic plus balloon breasts; the eye-patched naturalist Stapleton (Frederic once again); and his oddly Brazilian sister Cecille, played by a Frederic now ravishing in red.
As these casting notes suggest, this Hound is a careening romp of quick changes, as in the style of The Complete Wks of Wllm Shakespeare (abridged) or The Mystery of Irma Vep, and it also includes the meta-theatrical mugging that usually accompanies such shows. First of all, the actors are playing actors, and in fact they are introduced as such right at the top; we are watching a play within a play. Their set is a simple one of gray stones, one of which rolls around to stand in as sauna bench, carriage, bed, and other items; at the back is a screen for projecting decidedly non-Victorian pop references, and scene-setting shadow puppet cut-outs of first Big Ben, then Baskerville Hall. The show they put on is of high groundling quality and mood: Cobbling the plot together with bad wigs and hand puppets, the actors slip in and out of character to berate each other, have a laugh, look around for botched sound cue, or draw extra special attention to their impressive balloon breasts.
They seem to be having a high time of it as they do. All three actors pull off the fast-paced comedy with skill, great energy, and clear relish. Frederic and Matisa, the two who play multiple characters, are often breathless from their quick-changes, and they pull out the stops with their over-the-top accents and postures to distinguish between them. As Sir Henry, Matisa has a rugged, man's-man joviality that can melt instantly into tickle-party giggling with O'Connor's Watson, who also has a killer deadpan. His priceless expression, after hearing a malapropism involving the words "pony" and "sucking," was one of my favorite single moments of the show.