L.B. Morse's set design for Seattle Repertory Theatre's adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's second-greatest novel (number one, of course, is The Sign of the Four) is dazzling. His genius conjures up an impressive system of floating paintings, gothic furniture, hard ramps, translucent curtains, and projections of old, haunting footage of London and the English countryside.
Though many of his set's wonders were made possible by new technologies, it constitutes the most primitive element of this production. The ancient plays of Greece also aspired to this kind of spectacle, this desire to overwhelm the senses. Theater back then was all about impressing the audience, making them clap at some feat of coordination or device that made gods fly. What is new to theater now is the minimal play with no sets, just people talking. Something similar can be found in the microscopic realm of biology: Viruses are thought to be stripped-down life-forms, and so are actually more modern than the much larger and more complicated single-cell organisms—getting rid of stuff is more advanced, adding stuff is more ancestral. When the opening-night audience clapped at the end of the first spectacular sequence (the detective and his sidekick pursuing a suspect through the streets of London), with its huge but smoothly gliding set pieces and floating stairs, they were experiencing a feeling the Greeks could easily understand.
Director Allison Narver chose to transform the novel (adapted by established local actors R. Hamilton Wright and David Pichette), which is a cool combination of crime thriller and ghost story, into a comedy. The haunting poetry that defines Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles ("The wagonette swung round into a side road, and we curved upward through deep lanes worn by centuries of wheels, high banks on either side, heavy with dripping moss and fleshy hart's-tongue ferns. Bronzing bracken and mottled bramble gleamed in the light of the sinking sun...") is captured in Morse's designs, such as the numinous beauty of the train journey or the rising fog of the moor, but it doesn't determine the tone of the performances. The thing that does this is Narver's direction of Darragh Kennan as Sherlock Holmes, and their comic approach to England's most famous literary character. (Hamlet runs a close second.)
Recall Jeremy Brett's Holmes in the '80s British TV series; recall his intense seriousness, tight lips, and eagle-sharp eyes. This Holmes was so cold that every time he spoke, you expected to see a blast of chilled air from his mouth. Kennan's Holmes is the opposite of Brett's. He is loud and batty, which makes sense when you consider the improbability of the character's certainty, mastery, and observational powers. Holmes can make preternaturally accurate readings of unknown persons (where they grew up, where they now live, what kind of animals they own, what they had for dinner last night, and so on) based only on their surfaces (their clothes, their accents, their manners). Instead of trying to make these pronouncements plausible, Kennan amplifies them, never failing to amaze Watson, in a way that reveals their ridiculousness without going so far as to collapse them into a boring and cheap heap of camp.
After the nightmarish opening sequence, in which a man is pursued and devoured by a hellhound on a misty moor, Kennan initiates the comedy, and the rest of the play keeps it rolling in ways that are direct (such as Charles Leggett's crowd-pleasing rendition of the old fart Frankland) or indirect (Andrew McGinn's Dr. Watson, Hana Lass's Beryl Stapleton, and Basil Harris's Dr. Mortimer, which are closer to the original text).
Even the dead-serious themes and concerns of the play—such as trying to capture a killer, protect the innocent, and separate the natural (true) from the supernatural (untrue)—become funny. Once Holmes's seriousness is undone by traces of comedy, the entire culture Conan Doyle's novel represents is undone, and we can't help but chuckle at a society that had complete faith in progress, saw women as soft in the head, believed that the shape of a man's cranium corresponded with his intellectual abilities, and saw wars for resources and markets as an honorable civilizing mission in the long march of history.
Baskervilles first appeared a little over six months after Queen Victoria died in 1901, but it can hardly be called an Edwardian thriller—Edwardian novels, such as Heart of Darkness, anticipate the decline of imperial Britain, while Victorian novels could only bask in its glory, even as it was fading. All the major themes of that century, the peak of the empire, are packed tightly into this little novel. Victorians witnessed many amazing things: the commercialization of railroad transportation, the massification of consumer culture, a mail service that was fast and dependable, the rise and dominance of the godless theory of evolution that placed heredity at the center of life and fate, the end of biblical time, and the awareness of deep time. In the novel, as in the play, we see the ease and swiftness of trains, the commercial activities of the city (getting new boots, taking a cab, renting a room), the letters Watson writes to Holmes, and the perpetuation of regressive or progressive family traits alongside the horror of the moor itself—which is ancient, pre-Christian, and lost in the depths of time.
Conan Doyle, and this production, cast two spells at once. One enchants us with our terrifying closeness to the moor, the monsters, the primitive and visceral. The other enchants us with the belief that all of that can be undone by the finger-snap of technology, science, and cold rationality. Baskervilles is two stories in one: half horror, half crime.