Harry Slack, CJ Keller and Steve Carpenter. (Photo credit: Kyle Cassidy)

Curio Theatre Company Goes to the HOUNDs

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

West Philly’s Curio Theatre Company is closing out their current season with an exceedingly tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES.   The original, written in 1901, was the third of Doyle’s four novels featuring super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes.   As was the custom at the time, the book was serialized in the Strand Magazine over almost a year’s time, with the public left in suspense for weeks waiting to find out what happened next.  Holmes was an instantly popular character—and has remained so ever since.  The story is set on the moors of Britain’s West Country and tells of an aristocrat’s murder, purportedly by a ghostly giant, evil hound).

Cue the fog machine…

Curio’s Producing Artistic Director Paul Kuhn is directing this satirical version penned by Steven Canny and John Nicholson.   The best way to describe it is “Monty Python Meets Conan Doyle.”   Company members Steve Carpenter, CJ Keller and Harry Slack play a slew of characters—male and female—as they act out the story—with Carpenter doing the bulk of the quick-changes.   The plot tells of the Baskerville family’s having been cursed. According to legend, over two centuries ago Hugo Baskerville was infatuated with a farmer’s daughter, so he kidnapped her and imprisoned her in his bedroom.   She escaped and the furious Baskerville offered his soul to the devil if he could recapture her.   Aided by friends, he pursued the girl onto the desolate moor, where soon Baskerville and his victim were found dead. She had died from fright, but a giant spectral hound stood guard over Baskerville’s body.  The hound tore out Baskerville’s throat, and then vanished into the night.   Now another Baskerville, Sir Charles, has been found dead on the grounds of the estate and the family physician travels to London to enlist the great Sherlock Holmes’ help in finding his murderer.

The cast of Curio Theatre Company's THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES: back row from left to right, Harry Slack and Steve Carpenter. Down front, CJ Keller. (Photo credit: Kyle Cassidy)

The cast of Curio Theatre Company’s THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES: back row from left to right, Harry Slack and Steve Carpenter. Down front, CJ Keller. (Photo credit: Kyle Cassidy)

HOUND is being presented in Curio’s new basement space (dubbed The Corner Theatre because you enter the Calvary Center at the corner of 47th Street.) and the intimate space works well for this bit of silliness.   The theatre is very bare bones, so when the audience reaches the bottom of the long flight of stairs, they will pass an eight foot table full of costume pieces, wigs and other assorted props as they enter the space.   Kuhn has also designed the set and has decided to let all the bells and whistles show.   An excellent choice—it adds to the fun.   He has created some interesting movement for the piece, utilizing the thrust stage well.   His cast cleverly moves a door frame and assorted trunks around to create, among other things, a steam room, a train car, the mucky moor and Baskerville Hall.   And at one point a fireplace becomes a bed…

Since the action takes place in a multitude of locales, sound effects play an important role, with stage manager Beth Johnson doing a wonderful job as the live Foley artist.  Tim Martin has created a solid lighting plot that evokes the various settings and times of day. And Aetna Gallagher has rounded up an amazing assortment of costume pieces for the cast to use for each characterization. I don’t know how they keep it all straight.

The fourth wall is broken continually throughout the two hour performance, and the audience is really brought into the action.  Kuhn and his actors clearly had a blast creating the many bits in this piece.  The pace is lightning quick—actors and props are coming and going at breakneck speed.  As I said, Steve Carpenter does most of the heavy lifting; he portrays Holmes, the Baskerville’s butler (and his wife), a mysterious Brazilian woman and the villain. Carpenter jumps from accent to accent on a heartbeat, as well as throwing in various physical changes too.  He must be exhausted by the end of the evening.  Harry Slack portrays Sir Henry, the last of the Baskervilles, who has come to England to find out who killed his uncle, Sir Charles.  He also essays assorted village yokels.   Slack is especially adept at the sad sack yokel parts, but his Sir Henry is spot-on as well. The always solid CJ Keller plays Dr. Watson and some other townsfolk.   I’m not sure if this is scripted or if it’s something the Curio guys came up with, but Keller adds a hilarious Watson lusting after Holmes element to the proceedings that was a hoot.  At various points both he and Carpenter even play the hound. There is a lot going on and in lesser hands it could easily become painfully tedious (this is early in the run there were a couple of rough patches, but I’m certain they will smooth out as the run progresses).

Curio has really grown in their eight seasons; I have enjoyed every production I’ve seen there—and this is no exception.  The Company’s ensemble of actors are excellent storytellers; their work is always detailed and fully committed—even when it’s a play that’s just pure silliness. THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES is a fun escape from your daily pressures.  I recommend heading into West Philly to catch this gem before it closes on June 1st.

by Arthur Conan-Doyle
Adapted for the stage by Steven Canny & John Nicholson
Directed by Paul Kuhn
May 8-June 1, 2013
Curio Theatre Company
4740 Baltimore Avenue
Philadelphia, Pa 19143

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