Thursday, February 26, 2015

A dream of master sleuthing: IRT's production of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'

R. Hamilton Wright and David Pichette have hatched a dream about "The Hound of the Baskervilles," and the current production at Indiana Repertory Theatre is a deft interpretation of it.
Before the triggering event: Sir Charles waves off servant's assistance on the treacherous moor.


What the playwrights have done with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous tale resembles one kind of dreaming that fascinates us: the way our unconscious often crafts a scenario that takes what we know about people, mixes in our suppositions about and impressions of them, adds a considerable amount of bizarre behavior that makes more sense than it should, then delivers us dry-shod on the shores of consciousness oddly refreshed and amused.

When the dreamed-of genre is famous detective fiction, it's a sure bet that the deliverance will be tidier than the outcome of most dreams. In the Wright-Pichette adaptation, the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes are intact, though the playwright team's dream initially presents him bored with exercising those skills on crimes unworthy of him.

Watson (Matthew Brumlow) and Holmes (Marcus Truschinski) confer.
As seen Wednesday night, Marcus Truschinski's crisp fretfulness in the role strikingly laments the triviality of the demands made upon Holmes, and he has a temper. He bickers with Dr. Watson (Matthew Brumlow) more as a colleague than the occasionally dense underling we know from Nigel Bruce's film portrayal opposite the suave Basil Rathbone.

Veteran IRT director Peter Amster draws performances from the protean cast of nine that allow Wright-Pichette's cluttered dream to fall into place. My problem with the show is that I seem to be viewing all the competent, smoothly integrated action through a scrim. I use the term figuratively, because the look of the production (including startling, apt projections) is everything it should be: moody, evocative, technically deft, and in full partnership with the lighting and sound design.

The scrim I'm suggesting is a slight barrier — a dimming effect — that the story and the way it is told sets up between the acting and the audience. I'm not objecting to the fun that Wright-Pichette have with aspects of the Holmes persona. The legend permits teasing, and this treatment of it avoids campiness. That's why the self-referential interpolation by Brumlow of the line "The game's afoot" (with the parting shot that he always wanted to say that) fits right in. (Brumlow starred as an actor famous for portraying Sherlock Holmes in last year's IRT production of "The Game's Afoot.")

It's part of our collective dream of this master detective that his reasoning and observing powers border on the preternatural. The information Holmes gathers in the first scene from superficial scrutiny of James Mortimer (an excitable Ryan Artzberger) through the window of his Baker Street flat satisfies something everyone wishes for. If we suspected a stranger were shadowing us or simply about to come into our lives, wouldn't we like for even a momentary glimpse to jump-start our knowledge of him? Frankly, even out of idle curiosity, we often find ourselves wanting to know a lot more about people when it's none of our business.

Raw nerves are exposed as Sir Henry's dinner party concludes.
Holmes is a mighty character with worldwide appeal because of such normally unfulfilled desires. The Wright-Pichette dream is fully sensitive to that. But the authors are too fond of complicating the scenario Doyle left them with. I'm still trying to sort out the negative energy released at the end of the dinner party that the Baskerville heir, the ill-at-ease Canadian Sir Henry (Eric Parks), hosts.

I suspect that the playwrights relished the chance to have so much hostility displayed just to keep the audience guessing about the source of evil adding to the setting's atmosphere of foreboding. It's a somewhat mechanical set-up for the surprises in the play's final scene, which have that piled-on quality I've alluded to about dreamland.

Henry tries to comfort Beryl: If only he knew why that's impossible.
I'll admit I'm far from the ideal audience for detective fiction, whether written or staged. Part of me doesn't want things to fall into place. And I get embarrassed when my deductive powers are so far behind the detective's. Here, for instance, when it's pretty obvious how to answer the crucial question "Who released the hound?" late in the third act, I'm still wondering if it's a character I haven't seen yet. This makes no sense when there's a cast of nine (also including Mark Goetzinger, Robert Neal, Constance Macy, Will Mobley, and Cristina Panfilio) and you can eliminate the fleeting impersonations of ticket agents or porters taken on by actors who are all accounted for in the scene in front of you.

For better or worse, I'm a self-confessed aesthete, even though  I'm painfully reminded of Stephen Spender's warning (in his analysis of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock") that "aestheticism is the last refuge of the ineffective." Detective fiction, on the other hand,  is all about effectiveness. What pleases its fans is the intricacy and final unambiguity of its puzzles.  "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is a fantasy reined in only by the superficially unlikely triumph of logic and ratiocination. The style that suits it doesn't have much room for the three-dimensional richness of the best art.

Within its limits, the fantasy-in-a-lock-box now gracing IRT's mainstage is undeniably effective. But it's the effectiveness of a kind of dreaming I'm unable to fully sympathize with when it's so spookily paraded before me. The show's appeal is, you might say, elementary. But that's all it is.