4/18: Watson, the Needling

Wynn Harmon, Rich Silverstein and Gary Marachek look at THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES from a frantically farcical new angle, in the comedy going up April 19 at NJ Rep in Long Branch. (photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

You know the story: the creepy old mansion adrift on the ruddy, mist-shrouded moors of the West Country. The bloodline curse, the Great Grimpen Mire and the glowy-eyed hound from Hell. The celebrated sleuth, his easily flummoxed sidekick and the supernaturally-tinged suspenser that launched a thousand parodies, pastiches and pale imitations.

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brought back his famous creation Sherlock Holmes in 1901 (by what could diplomatically be called Popular Demand), he resurrected the iconic detective in grand style, with The Hound of the Baskervilles. The third Holmes novel — the author’s first Holmes tale of any sort since controversially killing off the character eight years earlier — was a jolly-good ripping yarn that immediately caught the public’s fancy; an instant classic that served to reinforce the fact that the brilliant deductive brain from Baker Street was bigger (and, for many, more real) than his walrus-mustached creator.

The basis for several straightforward screen adaptations (including some good ‘uns with Basil Rathbone and Peter Cushing) and a slew of romps, The Hound of the Baskervilles hits the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch as a rollicking show-within-a-show — one that goes up in previews on Thursday, April 19 and opens on Saturday, April 21.

In the script by Steven Canny and John Nicholson, a ragtag troupe of small-time actors barnstorms their way around the countryside with their own production of The Hound — an endeavor that’s complicated by the fact that the three thespians (Wynn Harmon, Gary Marachek, Rich Silverstein) are forced to take on all of the parts in the show — male, female, canine and force of supernature.

The show that continues through May 27 marks the play’s New Jersey premiere, as well as the NJ Rep debut of director Mark Shanahan — an actor, playwright, voice artist and educator who’s intimately familiar with the concept of multitasking.

You wouldn’t be out of line to think that Hound would certainly fulfill one’s minimum daily requirement for farcical, fast-change thrills drawn from some of the most time-honored conventions of the “veddy British” mystery tale — but you would be wrong, my dear Inspector. There’s another Shanahan-helmed play in “town;” one that raises its first curtain some 72 hours after opening night at NJ Rep — and one that, incredible as it may seem, could even outpace Hound in the chaos department.

That other play is The 39 Steps, the Tony winning 2007 tour-de-farce adapted by Patrick Barlow from a vintage spy thriller by John Buchan — or, cutting to the chase, the 1935 screen version directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The show goes up on Tuesday, April 24 as the final production of the season at George Street Playhouse, continuing at the venerable New Brunswick venue through May 20.

A tale of mistaken manhunts, stolen secrets and confounding conspiracies comes equipped with wink-wing/nudge-nudge allusions to other works from the Master’s canon, along with a devilishly crowdpleasing device in which the supporting players in the four-person cast take on dozens of parts (including inanimate objects) in a breathless series of lightning-quick changes.

Shanahan, who understudied the lead in the show’s 2008 Broadway run AND directed two previous productions (when he wasn’t teaching a course in Hitchcock’s films at Fordham University), wrangles a cast that stars Tony nominee Howard McGillin as harried hero Richard Hannay. Stacie Morgan Lewis costars as all of the play’s female characters, with Michael Thomas Holmes and Mark Price as pretty much everybody and everything else.

UpperWETside managed to flag down the beyond-busy director as he galloped between Long Branch and New Brunswick on Route 18, like a man with a hellhound on his tail…

Director Mark Shanahan takes a whirlwind theater tour of New Jersey, with new productions at New Jersey Repertory Company (THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES) and George Street Playhouse (THE 39 STEPS).

upperWETside: Thanks for finding the time to talk! Just contemplating what your schedule must be like, running back and forth between these two shows, leaves me winded…you probably feel like one of the actors in THE 39 STEPS, not knowing which suit of clothes you’re supposed to be wearing at any given point… 

MARK SHANAHAN: It’s been a mammoth month. I’m happy as a pig in shit…I go to work each day with a bunch of really funny people, and an incredible staff at each theater.

And are things proceeding apace? Everything humming along on your way to a week of two premieres?

You know, I don’t even pay attention to these things! My attitude is, as soon as a paying audience shows up, we’re on! The train has left the station.

So let’s talk about this HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES…I understand you go way back with your affinity for Sherlock Holmes; a regular Baker Street Irregular…

In America, we call them “Sherlockians.” When I was 13, my uncle gave me an annotated copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles and I just fell in love with that world…I love that there are people out there who treat Holmes and Watson as actual historical figures; who take it all so seriously. All these experts who can figure out that a certain story takes place on a Tuesday, because of the train schedules…

I get a kick out of the fact that Arthur Conan Doyle, who was the inventor of the most rational character in literature, was so interested in the spirit world, in trying to contact the other side…whereas Harry Houdini, the illusionist, spent his time trying to debunk all that. You get a taste of that in the movie FairyTale.

Doyle had gotten pretty sick of Sherlock Holmes after a while; he wanted to be known for other things, like the Professor Challenger stories, so he famously killed off Holmes…of course the public outcry forced him to bring the character back, and The Hound of the Baskervilles was written after that time, although it was set before the story in which Holmes was supposedly killed.

It’s a story that really gives the readers what they want. You see a spooky castle in the middle of the country; a ghostly spectral dog that turns out to be a regular dog dressed up.

So yeah, I’m a big fan of the Holmes books…I’ve seen every version of the Hound films.

Even the one with William Shatner?

Right, the TV movie from the 1970s…the one with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore also; those guys did some great funny things with the Holmes characters.

Since then you’ve had Holmes being played by everybody from Charlton Heston, Roger Moore, Michael Caine, John Cleese, Rupert Everett…and now Robert Downey Jr.

It does prove once again that this character of Sherlock Holmes is so malleable…in the new films he’s a boxer, an action hero; he can be a drug addict or a comedian or any one of a number of things. Holmes is just this unbelievably brilliant character who survives any attempt at changing him.

And we keep flashing back to Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as the default conception of Holmes and Watson, even though most of the films they did together took place in the 1940s — with Rathbone sporting an incredibly bizarre haircut. 

I’m glad you mentioned that! Yes, a very strange haircut in a couple of those pictures. Just the first two movies with Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were period pieces, and that whole iconic image of Holmes, with the Inverness, the deerstalker cap, comes more or less from the magazine illustrations by Sidney Paget. A stage actor named William Gillette was the first to portray Holmes — in a play that he wrote and performed many times over the years — and that whole look of the character, with the pipe and everything, was kind of locked into place through him.

You mentioned the drug addict thing, which was really explored in detail by Nicholas Meyer with THE SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION. What did you think of his books; that one and THE WEST END HORROR?

I did the premiere of Sherlock Holmes and The West End Horror, which was adapted by my friend Tony Dodge and his wife Marcia. I met my own wife, Jennifer Waldman — of Jen Waldman Studio — on that production ten years ago! She’s working on The 39 Steps as our movement choreographer, which is an important job in a show with all those quick changes and exits and entrances.

The West End Horror is a fun story because it takes place in the theater; it’s got people like Bram Stoker, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde in it…all those people who were there in London in those years. You have to wonder what was in the water in that little patch of London back then.

It sounds like you and Mr. Holmes have levels of connection beyond anything I’ve imagined!

In fact, I asked the actor who played Shaw in that show to play Holmes at New Jersey Rep. This show is actually a pretty good, full rendition of The Hound…a pretty expert telling of the story that covers all the points.

Essentially, it’s about theater people…you have the sense that you’re seeing a traveling troupe who are here in Long Branch to put on a show tonight.

These actors somehow become a company, come together and make a show…there’s this feeling of ‘Hey, I love doing this!’ And it’s all done with a three man cast.

That’s something the show definitely shares in common with THE 39 STEPS.

The two plays are kissing cousins. In rehearsal, we’re asking what’s the LEAST we need to tell the MOST story…and the answer is, let the actors do it!

Sounds like a good approach for the oddly configured space they’ve got there at New Jersey Rep…a little shadowbox diorama of a stage that they’ve done all kinds of wonders with. Did they approach you with this project, or did you bring it to them?

I got a copy of the script and sent it to Gabe and SuzAnne (Barabas, founders of NJ Rep). They decided to go with it, and Gabe told me ‘I want my audience to come and have a wonderful time.’

You know, I’ve worked at fancy theaters, and I’ve worked at places that have no resources, no wing space…what Gabe and Sue have created here is something special. They’ve got a lot of graciousness and courage to choose things that they believe in. There’s a real community feeling to the space…you’re appreciated and treated well.

The Hound of the Baskervilles presents matinee and evening previews on April 19 and 20; opens April 21 at 8pm, and continues until May 27 with performances Thursdays through Sundays. Ticket reservations, showtimes and additional information can be obtained here. The 39 Steps goes up in New Brunswick April 24 and continues through May 20; take it right here to reserve tickets.