Not much bite in City Lit Theater’s ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’
At best, City Lit’s staging is faint reminder of just how great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s remarkable, enduring creation was.
The genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle always shows up in the first paragraphs his Sherlock Holmes adventures, often before the great fictional detective agrees to take on whatever case he’s about to crack. That’s when Holmes inevitably examines a small, mundane object and reveals almost all there is to know about the item’s owner.
At first, it seems like magic: How else to explain Holmes’ ability to glance at, for example, a walking stick, and then correctly deduce the age, profession and ambitions of its owner — as well as the size of his dog? When Holmes explains how he does it, the magic falls away; his deductions suddenly seem so obvious you’ll feel stupid for not seeing them yourself.
As the super sleuth points out in City Lit artistic director Terry McCabe’s adaptation of Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” the world is full of obvious things that go unnoticed.
But Doyle does more than turn feats of logic into mind-blowing parlor tricks. Holmes’ mathematically precise powers of reason are always wrapped around gloriously overheated melodramas. Holmes’ cases invariably include imperiled ladies, fraught romances, sociopathic criminals, family curses, legendary gemstones and intrigue of the highest order, not to mention sweeping English vistas worthy of a Bronte novel. That’s the enduring appeal of the myriad adventures of Sherlock Holmes: They are a near perfect marriage of right brain analytic prowess and left brain flights of torrid, macabre fancy.
When: Through Nov. 10
Where: City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (inside Edgewater Presbyterian Church)
Run time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission
Some of that brilliance sporadically surfaces in McCabe’s toothless adaptation for City Lit, which he also directed. Set in 1889, “The Hound of the Baskervilles” revolves around a curse involving an allegedly demonic hound with a penchant for eviscerating heirs to the ancient Baskerville estate. The supposedly supernatural beast first appeared when it ripped out the throat of Sir Hugo Baskerville in the mid-17th century. Since Hugo, the Baskervilles have been pursued — or so it seems — by the canine monster prowling the moors of Devonshire.
Doyle’s novella is just the thing for Halloween season, but much of the original’s ghoulish wonder is entirely lost in City Lit’s static production. McCabe’s adaptation relies far more on telling than showing. We hear what happened via letters and narration, so much so that the actors sometimes pantomime scenes, silently gesturing and moving their mouths in the background while a foreground character explains what they’re saying or doing. It leaches the production of the immediacy that’s required for drama to succeed.
Moreover, McCabe’s blocking is oddly stagnant for a tale that involves several wild chases across the moonlit moors. There is far too much sitting and standing around talking, delivering a production that is more a staged reading than a fully produced play. Disappointingly, we never see so much of a hair of the hound. (Also unseen: The deliciously macabre murders that propel the plot.)
As Sherlock Holmes, James Sparling looks and sounds the part — he’s got a hawk-like profile and the abrupt, imperious demeanor of a genius who is fully aware of his mental superiority and has little patience for those less cerebrally gifted. Adam Bitterman provides a competent but forgettable sidekick in Dr. Watson. The doctor’s complicated life story — war veteran, husband, doctor — has been wholly erased. Watson exists only as a prop for Sherlock.
Set designer Ray Toler does what he can to depict the vastness of the moors and the looming hulk of the Baskerville manor within City Lit’s tiny space. He is limited by both space and, likely, budget: A few rocky outcroppings stand in for the desolate landscape, archways the color of granite and moss indicate the gloomy mansion.
The most striking element of the production is composer Ben Chang’s original violin music, which he plays live. The otherworldly shrieks of the hound, the mysterious screams of its victims, the wail of ponies being sucked down into the moor’s suffocating quicksand —they’re all marvelously rendered by Chang’s emotive strings.
But underscoring can’t carry the production out of its expository mire. At best, City Lit’s staging is faint reminder of just how great Doyle’s remarkable, enduring creation was. It’s all bark, and no bite.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.