Substance over Spectacle: Lose the gimmicks, not the soul

by Beacon Staff • September 15, 2011

, Beacon Correspondent/strong

It is no great secret that American theater is dying. Many blame the New York musical and over-the-top Disney adaptations — we like to tout unique characteristics like intimacy and live energy and claim that people will return some day in droves for these experiences.

But as much as I would enjoy it, running down Broadway with Mickey’s smoldering head on a pike won’t save theater. And if we were delivering on our claims of intimacy, we wouldn’t have lost audiences in the first place. The only way to resurrect theater is by offering an experience that speaks to the whole human spirit.

The Central Square Theater’s recent production of emThe Hound of the Baskervilles/em shows, however, you can only tear down so many barriers before there’s nothing left.

Rather than a straight retelling of the Holmes mystery — in which the great detective must stop a supernatural dog that is hunting and killing the Baskerville family — the production adapts the novel into a total farce.

Take away the disappointing narrative and the lame jokes, and there are still bits of progress here. emThe Hound of the Baskervilles/em reminds audience members that in theater, a play doesn’t even need the correct number of actors.  As the economy worsens, theater companies stay small and talented and then double-up the roles. Not only does this keep weaker performers off the stage, it requires an exceptional and evenly trained ensemble.

Furthermore, this production has turned a lack of props and set into an impressive and graceful part of the narrative.

Quite cleverly, former American Repertory Theatre director Thomas Derrah recognizes that if an audience is ready and excited about having too few actors, a lean set and minimal props are all part of the fun.

Carriages are made out of stacked trunks swept on quickly from the wings. Even quicksand is possible when an actor, hidden from the knees down behind one of these rocks, buckles their legs as if falling into soft earth.

But the refreshingly decreased focus on props and logistics does not, unfortunately, lead to more revealing content. emThe Hound of the Baskervilles/em is all little boy humor. The air fills with the sound of plastic guns clicking and the sobs of men in drag.  Bill Mootos, Remo Airaldi, and Trent Mills are all fine actors, but the humor here is only found in bits of physical comedy or attempts to turn the initially clever concept from magic to gimmick.

Jokes are made about the Velcro on the costumes and the obviousness of the prop food. At intermission I hear a patron say, “I could do without all the running and screaming.”

I wish that more classic writing was treated with the irreverence of this adaptation, but such irreverent treatment should be a comment on the work itself. emThe Hound of the Baskervilles/em source material is here only to provide characterization and plot so the actors can focus on gags.

We need comedy to save theater, but this production further shows a misunderstanding that has persisted for 2,300 years — ever since Aristotle’s emPoetics/em erroneously drew a line between comedy and tragedy. Pure farce does nothing for the heart, and humorless drama keeps people out of theaters.

In the essay “Tragedy and the Common Man,” Arthur Miller gives a definition of tragedy that passes for comedy just as well: the story of an individual with a great flaw, willing to die to secure a sense of self and personal dignity. We are in pain, pain gives way to hunger for something greater, and our attempts to be great are tragic and hilarious failures.

The more plays staged with those stories, the more theaters we’ll save.

emKabialis is a junior writing, literature, and publishing major. He can be reachd at benjamin_kabialis@emerson.edu/em