DOUBLE TAKE: A Curious Case of Ars Simia Naturae in Curio Theatre Company’s THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND

Liam Castellan as critic Moon in THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND. Photo credit: Kyle Cassidy.

Liam Castellan as critic Moon in THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND. Photo credit: Kyle Cassidy.

Following his success last season with Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST, Dan Hodge returns to Curio Theatre Company to direct Tom Stoppard’s early spoof, THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND, the first full-stage production in its new second space at West Philadelphia’s Calvary Center. A parody of such mainstays of the British murder-mystery genre as Agatha Christie’s THE MOUSETRAP and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, it’s a delightful 75 minutes of self-referencing humor that blurs the boundaries between reality and theater, and ridiculously reaffirms Shakespeare’s dictum that “All the world’s a stage.”

The parallels between real life and drama are interwoven in Stoppard’s play-within-a-play, when two self-important theater critics seated in the audience break through the stage’s fourth wall and become part of the mystery being performed, and the actions and dialogue of its first act are then looped, with them as the protagonists, in the second. The device not only shatters the barriers between actors and viewers, but also between the play and the playwright (early in his career Stoppard worked as a theater critic, and later left his second wife for an actress named Felicity–a character in INSPECTOR HOUND’S staged melodrama, portrayed by an ingenue with whom the fictional lead critic has had a dalliance).

CJ Keller appears as the title character in Curio’s THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND. Photo credit: Kyle Cassidy.

CJ Keller appears as the title character in Curio’s THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND. Photo credit: Kyle Cassidy.

Absurd, over-the-top hilarity ensues, with intentionally bad writing and acting, stereotyped characters, obvious disguises, a prominent but inexplicably unobserved dead body, and critics who analyze the awful whodunit in cliché-ridden reviews filled with over-inflated language and preposterously heady concepts (“I think we are entitled to ask, Where is God?”). Hodge deftly leads the ensemble-based production, using Curio’s regular stable of actors and designers, through the daffy script, and his cast clearly enjoys playing it to the hilt, performing the camp histrionics with aplomb.

Ryan Walter and Liam Castellan are convincingly egotistical and blustery as the critics Birdboot and Moon, who transition from pretentious reviewers to unwitting participants in the mystery. Steve Carpenter is dashing as the playboy Simon Gascoyne, who arrives unexpectedly at Muldoon Manor, and Jennifer Summerfield strikes the appropriate poses as Lady Cynthia Muldoon, whose husband has mysteriously disappeared, and who has become the object of the affections of Simon, her wheelchair-bound brother-in-law Magnus (Joshua L. Browns), and Birdboot. Aetna Gallagher (who also designed the hilariously archetypal costumes that contribute greatly to the play’s satirical humor) provides a visual and aural counterpoint to the upper crust as Mrs. Drudge, the manor’s slow housekeeper, with disheveled clothes and Cockney accent. CJ Keller, in full Sherlock Holmes-style attire and accoutrements, plays the bumbling Inspector Hound with comedic cluelessness, and Rachel Gluck is a standout as Felicity, perfectly capturing the enunciation, ennui, and stiff-upper-lip of British aristocrats.

Curio’s new intimate black box space, transformed into the drawing room of an historic English house by Paul Kuhn’s simple but tasteful set design, allows for the easy entry of Birdboot and Moon into the play. And a well-placed mirror on the back wall reflects the audience, just as the play-within-a-play reflects the secret lives of the critics, in this entertaining send-up of Boccaccio’s observation, “Ars simia naturae” (“Art imitates life”).

By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Dan Hodge
December 5-29, 2012
Curio Theatre Company
815 S.48th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19143

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