The Hound of the Baskervilles is a masterpiece of Victorian melodrama and moody mystery. But if you’re hankering for melodrama and a moody mystery, Delaware Theatre Company’s 41st season opener is not for you. Directed by Matt Pfeiffer with panache and brio and tongue firmly in cheek, this madcap spoof collides with Arthur Conan Doyle’s brooding noir novella in an evening howling with laughter.
Created in 2007 by Brits Steven Canny and John Nicholson for their London company Peepolykus—noted for anarchic comic style—this devised work was an immediate West End hit. Chock-full of Marx Brothers antics, Pfeiffer’s DTC production is clearly destined for the same comic fate.
Three merry pranksters
The show opens as three merry pranksters—well-cast Philadelphians Damon Bonetti, Sean Close, and Dave Johnson (seen at DTC in past seasons)—address the audience. Setting up the Sherlock Holmes tale, these excellent, sublimely clowning actors play themselves as three clownish not-so-excellent actors readying to assail (and assault) this classic work. They play every significant (and insignificant) character and as expected, mayhem ensues.
Slamming a comically placed center-stage door, enthusiastically hapless Henry Baskerville begins. But wait! There’s a quick break from storytelling as the actors give a series of disclaimers, concluding: “If you have a general inability to tell fact from fiction, you may leave the theater.” Then Close (playing Baskerville and others) resumes his tale, as Bonetti (Sherlock Holmes and others) and Johnson (Dr. Watson and others) agree to take the case.
In an evening filled with puns and Monty Python-style wordplay, Holmes is of course supremely confident and annoyingly superior. His sidekick, hardworking wannabe detective Watson, is, well, hardworking and not always up to snuff. And Baskerville, eager to see the supposedly cursed Baskerville Hall—his recent inheritance—is eager and often clueless.
Courtesy of a trunk that flips open to become a railway seat, the trio travel to the moors of Dartmoor. There they meet the Hall’s suspiciously bearded butler, his weepy wife, an equally suspicious butterfly collector (all played by Bonetti with gleeful obviousness), and his disturbed sister, who instantly becomes young Baskerville’s romantic interest. Of course, after much ado the mysterious mystery is solved—no spoilers here!—and the trio of actors happily take their well-deserved bows.
Reality: don’t take it literally
Along the way, the audience is treated to comedy from every stage corner, speaker, and seam. Courtesy of scenic designer Meghan Jones, the evening boasts a peripatetic door, a traveling fireplace, flying chairs, and lots and lots and lots of Dartmoor-ish mist, which seeps in through every cranny and at every available (convenient or inconvenient) opportunity. Alyssandra Docherty’s witty lights bump up and down, flicker, slice through the fog, and turn glaringly red each time the title hellhound makes a sonic appearance.
Sound design by Christopher Colucci and Lucas Campbell fills the theater with squeaks, creaks, thumps, neighs, and the baying of the great hound, as well as music ranging oh-so-cleverly from Victorian parlor songs to The Clash’s “London Calling.” And Jillian Keys’s costumes seem to have a life of their own. Tasked with enabling actors to make scores of quick changes, Keys makes no secret of her breakaway, tearaway, runaway tricks. Zip-open hooks are obvious, pants are visible under skirts, strings dangle by a thread and beards are held on like sunglasses. Bringing the audience in on these and other jokes throughout the evening is one of the show’s delights.
Metatheatrical plays that break the fourth wall, calling attention to themselves as works of theater, are often serious explorations of the nature of art versus reality. This wacky adaptation of the renowned Conan Doyle tale of good and evil is about reality, too. But here the message is that reality doesn’t have to be taken too literally. We can explore it with zest and humor and a light heart: tenets roundly adopted, skillfully mounted, and gleefully achieved by Pfeiffer and his merry up-for-anything troupe.
What, When, Where
Hound of the Baskervilles, adapted by Steven Canny and John Nicholson from the story by Arthur Conan Doyle, directed by Matt Pfeiffer. Through September 29, 2019 at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington, DE. (302) 594-1100 or delawaretheatre.org.
DTC is a wheelchair-accessible venue with wireless assistive-listening devices and large-print programs available. If you need wheelchair seating, let the box office know when you order your tickets. See details online.