I’ve been a fan of Sherlock Homes since my freshman year of college, when an obsession with BBC’s Sherlock led to an obsession with the original Holmes stories and eventually an obsession with CBS’ Elementary. I’ve also seen all the Robert Downey, Jr. Holmes films. All this is to say that even 130 years after his debut, the famous consulting detective still captures our imaginations and inspires new adaptations.
So it’s no surprise, then, that this Halloween season City Lit Theater Company, whose work often focuses on literary adaptation, chose one of the most famous (and famously spooky) Holmes tales for their season opener: The Hound of the Baskervilles, adapted and directed by artistic director Terry McCabe. This Holmesian novel features Watson venturing out solo to investigate the death of the wealthy Sir Charles Baskerville. The locals suspect a hellhound of legend, said to bring death to any Baskerville who wanders onto the moor at night. Holmes and Watson suspect foul play.
McCabe’s text and direction present a fairly straightforward adaptation of the tale. The story is told as you expect it to be told: the script is in close alignment with the original text, with Watson reading aloud from the same letters to Holmes and journal entries he references in the book. The characters look how you expect them to look: white and mostly male, in period-accurate costumes. McCabe promised more diversity and more women later in the season when he plugged season subscriptions at the top of the show, and though I had no trouble distinguishing characters because of my familiarity with the story, if you, like me, often struggle to differentiate between flocks of white male characters in suits, this may not be the show for you.
This may also not be the show for you if you prefer your mysteries to clip along quickly. The events of the play, like the novel, unfold slowly, and while I enjoyed the gradual uncovering of each clue and found the show to be just the right length, it might seem to others that this two and a half hour play drags.
In spite of a few faults, there is much to love in this production. One of the highlights of the performance is the inclusion of a live violinist, Eugene Kaler, performing beautiful music composed by Ben Chang, which sets the tone for each moment, whether cheerful, suspenseful, or eerie. Even the hound’s howl is produced (effectively!) by the violin. The unit set, designed by Ray Toler, creates Baker Street, Baskerville Hall, the haunting moor, and several other locations successfully with a compact, multi-purpose design with colors and shapes reminiscent of the Devonshire moor. Many of the special effects, including the appearance of the hound, are done through rich descriptive language and compelling performances by the actors, rather than actually realized, which is probably for the best; I’d rather leave the horror to my imagination than see it realized cheaply and unconvincingly.
James Sparling is a brilliant Holmes, capturing both his genius and self-absorption in a way that still leaves the detective charming and likeable for all his peculiarity. Even more remarkable is Adam Bitterman as Watson, who, after all, serves as both narrator and protagonist with Holmes absent for most of the story. Bitterman’s Watson is empathetic, loyal, intelligent, kind, and sometimes befuddled, all played with nuance, skill, and charisma. Indeed, Bitterman’s rock-solid performance is the core of the show, which would risk growing tedious without a compelling lead. Dylan S. Roberts and David Fink are delightful as the skull-obsessed Dr. Mortimer and insect-loving Stapleton, respectively, and Hilary Hensler excels in her brief but important role as Laura Lyons.
Both devotees and casual fans of Holmes will find plenty to enjoy in this play, which features humor, mystery, and spookiness in a well-mixed cocktail perfect for the Halloween season.
Bias warning: I briefly worked with both Dylan S. Roberts and David Fink at Compass Creative Dramatics.
Location: City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Chicago 60660 (Inside Edgewater Presbyterian Church)
Dates: September 27 – November 10, 2019
Times: Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm.
Tickets: $32.00, seniors $27.00, students and military $12.00 (all plus applicable fees). More info and tickets available at the City Lit website or 773-293-3682.
All photos by Steve Graue.