Sunday, December 15, 2013

Review of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" at Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT

Shows with just a few characters playing a variety of roles need to be concerned about timing, pacing, and inventiveness.  The gold standard is the original 1984 production of The Mystery of Irma Vep with creator Charles Ludlam and Everett Quinton.  More recently, there has been the Hitchcock send-up, The 39 Steps, and currently, Off-Broadway, the hilarious, Murder for Two.  Locally, Playhouse on Park has undertaken the three-person retelling of the Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Hounds of the Baskervilles.  While there are some humorous and creative moments the production suffers from a sluggish tempo and slapdash characterizations.

The Arthur Conan Doyle story, one of the best known in the Holmes canon, concerns a spectral hound that has, supposedly, roamed the Scottish moors for generations, targeting the Baskerville clan.  When the last surviving family member, Sir Henry, arrives from Canada to claim his family’s property Holmes and Watson are on the case to protect the new squire and solve the perplexing puzzle.

The three actors in the show are very good in their primary roles.  Rich Hollman is slightly bland, but not as pompous or grating as other portrayers of the world’s greatest detective or, as stated in the show, the second best sleuth.   Sean Harris is more a bumbling, confused Nigel Bruce type in his depiction of Dr. Watson.  Brennan Caldwell has a deft comic touch as Henry Baskerville.  All the actors are game for the physicality called upon for the show.  However, the other characters they inhabit show little imagination.  Witness Jeff Blumenkrantz in Off-Broadway’s Murder for Two who morphs into over a half dozen characters by simply altering his voice or facial expressions.  That sort of dexterity would have been more captivating then throwing scraggly on a black beard or white dress, as done in this production.

Scenes in The Hound of the Baskervilles seemed to languish much too often.  The overall tone needed more of a madcap flavor.  Director Tom Ridgely should have had the actors gone more over-the-top as displayed in the first part of Act II.  The show was not fast-paced enough to keep it from becoming wearisome instead of what could have been an outrageous, off-the-wall affair.

Thought should also have been given to trim the two hour running time (including intermission).  The show would have been more robust and entertaining at a compact 90 minutes of straight lunacy.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, playing through December 22nd.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review of "A Christmas Carol" - Hartford Stage

Hartford Stage’s annual production of A Christmas Carol, is a wholly satisfying, slightly busy, celebration.  The holiday tradition is a feast of sight and sound with wondrous special effects, flying and dancing ghosts, sumptuous costumes and, of course, a heart-warming tale of atonement and rebirth. 

The large cast, augmented by undergraduates from The Hartt School as well as a gaggle of young children, provides a wondrous and magical spectacle that can be enjoyed by all ages.  One reason the show is so rewarding is how in sync the creative team is in fostering a totally connected vision.  Scenic Designer, Tony Straiges; Lighting Designer, Robert Wierzel; and Sound Designer, John Gromada (who also provides original incidental music) have fabricated a unique pageant with the sum greater then each part, allowing each component to build upon the other.  Each of their contributions would be diminished without the other.

The cast is uniformly first-rate led by an irascible Bill Raymond as Ebenezer Scrooge.  Raymond knows the role well as he has played it hundreds of times.  As well-versed as he is, occasionally he becomes somewhat cloying when he should remain more Bah! Humbug! -ish.  Robert Hannon Davis is a nice counterbalance as the humble and dignified Bob Cratchit.  Noble Shropshire almost steals the show as both Scrooge’s housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber, and the ghostly Jacob Marley.

Director Maxwell Williams delivers the frights as well as setting an atmospheric tone of Victorian England.  There are many flourishes he incorporates into the production that heighten the show’s dramatic and comedic sweep.  He is equally adept at staging scenes with the sizeable cast or when there are just a few actors on stage.  Sometimes the production felt rather cluttered and too bustling.  The more poignant, less embellished parts of the show, such as the Cratchit family at home, truly grasped the essence of what A Christmas Carol is all about.

A Christmas Carol, a seasonal stalwart, updated and joyous, playing at Hartford Stage through December 28th.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Review of "Christmas on the Rocks" - Theaterworks, Hartford, CT

My first reaction upon leaving Theaterworks’ highly entertaining world premiere production, Christmas on the Rocks, was why hadn’t someone thought of this idea before now?  Director Rob Ruggiero asked seven playwrights—John Cariani, Jeffrey Hatcher, Jacques Lamarre, Matthew Lombardo, Theresa Rebeck, Edwin Sanchez, and Jonathan Tolin--to take iconic Christmas characters from holiday themed movies and television classics and reimagine them as older, more disenchanted and indifferent individuals.  The result—seven very short playlets (no more then 12 minutes each) that are at times funny, poignant, joyful, and touching. 

Each scene takes place in a seedy bar overseen by an aged bartender, played with a convincing worldweariness by Ronn Carroll.  The other two cast members, the talented Harry Bouvy and Christine Pedi, portraying a variety of characters, rotate scenes until they unite in the finale.  Which portions of the linked plays did I like the most?  What about those I found only mildly amusing?  I’d rather not say, leaving the decision to each audience member.  Each of the seven had their own charm and wit.  Some I preferred might not have registered with other theater-goers and vice versa.  The plots?  Again, mum’s the word.  Half of the fun of Christmas on the Rocks is discovering who the character is when they walk through the bar’s front door.  However, be forewarned--brush up on your holiday films and TV shows before attending a performance.  This will maximize your viewing pleasure and understanding of the inside jokes.

All three actors were marvelous, displaying subtle, humorous or over-the-top portrayals, depending on the their particular scene.  With a different wig and change of clothing both Bouvy and Pedi were able to become a multitude of completely different, totally convincing characters.  Bravo.

Michael Schweikardt’s set design of the run-down pub was so authentic looking.  His attention to detail was superb.  Look for Kris Kringle’s cane and Tiny Tim’s walking stick to the side of the bar and the dollar bills taped to the mirror.  A lit chihuahua’s head at the top of the liquor cabinet was an offbeat touch.

Director Rob Ruggiero effortlessly connects each of the seven plays to form a seamless whole. He skillfully guides each performer to bring out the essence of their role whether it is the comic, the inspirational, or the nuttiness or all three.  Ruggiero perfectly paces each scene to elicit just the right blend of emotion and entertainment.

Christmas on the Rocks, hopefully a new holiday tradition in the Hartford area, playing now through December 22nd.