“A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound …
Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smoldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.”
— from “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” by Arthur Conan Doyle
It is considered by many Sherlock Holmes aficionados to be the spookiest and scariest mystery ever tackled by the legendary master sleuth. It unfolds in Holmes’ London lair, then at the remote Baskerville Hall (“a place of shadow and gloom”) in rural Devon, at the edge of a steep cliff, in pea-soup fog on a desolate moor.
This much is elementary, dear reader: We’re speaking of “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” And for the world premiere of a new dramatic adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle novel, written by local actor-playwrights R. Hamilton Wright and David Pichette, the Seattle Repertory Theatre is charged with conjuring rural and urban Victorian England on the Bagley Wright stage.
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Moreover, the production should arouse in the audience the story’s jolts of fear and dread — as does Dr. Watson (played at the Rep by Andrew McGinn), the faithful sidekick of Sherlock Holmes (Darragh Kennan), in his gripping account of a case in which murder and a family curse figure — along with a hellhound so beastly it can, reportedly, kill you with a stare and a snarl.
“Hound” has been adapted more than 30 times for film and TV — most recently, in a splendidly updated version in the current “Sherlock” series, which airs on public television. Yet transferring Doyle’s 1902 novel to the stage presents a host of creative challenges embraced by the writers, director Allison Narver, scenic and lighting designer L.B. Morse and the rest of the Seattle Rep artistic team.
“We’ve tried to crunch four or five days of action into a single day, so it’s a slightly accelerated version of the book,” explains co-author Wright. “It’s difficult, because we’re not only competing with readers’ imaginations, but also with images from films.”
“We want to evoke the story’s Gothic melodrama, and wonderful suspense,” says Narver. “And for stage pictures, we loved the idea of combining the feeling of Victorian London and the English countryside. That was our biggest challenge.”
Morse and Narver have spent months working out how to set the action in some 18 different locales written into the script. Their design concept for this tale set in 1889 focuses “mainly on the grimy, industrial England, rather than the filigree-and-tea-party England,” Morse states.
Researching period architecture via photo books like Philip Davies’ “Lost London: 1870-1945,” Morse created a flexible background unit of imposing, movable pillars augmented with ironwork inspired by Victoria Station, one of the play’s settings.
To keep the plot moving apace, Morse created a smoothly changing array of set pieces and furnishings, such as a rolling staircase that doubles as a railroad bridge. Mobile furnishings are whisked in to define the interior spaces — for instance, Holmes’ digs at 221B Baker St.
are suggested by “a pair of windows, a great writing desk and a wing chair where Holmes sits and thinks,” Morse says.
For Baskerville Hall, “a 12-foot fireplace unit flies in. So do 4- and 5-foot-high paintings of the Baskerville ancestors, who play a role in telling the story.”
“Everything has to be really fleet,” affirmed Narver. “It all needs to move swiftly and elegantly, so that with a couple of visual gestures we’ll wind up in a new place.”
Equally important to the look of the show are digital projections Morse designed that were inspired by vintage daguerreotype photographs. Lighting effects are also crucial. The moor is lit to be “dark and misty, with some low-lying fog, some haze,” says the designer. “We wanted to suggest the wide-open expanse of the moor, but also the claustrophobia of being enveloped in the fog and mist.”
Deb Trout’s Victorian-era costumes are another key to establishing character and period. And the music and sound design crafted by Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Paul James Prendergast must serve various aspects of the drama, especially the fomenting of fear and dread.
“We have to keep the audience worked up enough so even a character entering a room will make them jump,” notes Narver.
And how will the Rep portray that snarling, horrific canine in the play’s title?
Nobody is giving that piece of stagecraft away. It remains a mystery only a trip to the theater will solve.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org