Glory Bowen and Frank Calo's Planet Connections Theatre Festival was a whirlwind of theatrical entertainment that, as mentioned in a previous review, I applaud for going above and beyond attempts at not only presenting solid Off-Off Broadway Theatre, but also combining creativity with philanthropy and raising awareness. It was my delight, then, to find that two plays chock-full of some of my favorite genres (vampires, horror, mystery and suspense) were to be presented - and that one, Suckers by Duncan Pflaster (one of my favorite contemporary playwrights), and Hound, by John Patrick Bray, based loosely on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (another one of my favorite tales of all time). Since I saw both towards the end of the run of the Festival, it's my pleasure to say that this Festival ended with a bang - and then some; I had a blast. Neither piece took themselves too seriously (except some deeper moments in Hound, which I'll get to) but these two plays, themed around murder, madness, and the supernatural, allowed the audience to laugh right along with the actors/writers/directors.
Hound is a dark comedy, with emphasis on the dark, because we are dealing not with the famous Sherlock Holmes so much as we are the life - and emotional duress - of Dr. Watson (tenderly played by Cavan Hallman). The performance that I attended, Watson's dear friend Sherlock was played by Ryan Knowles, who was not even mentioned in the program (other than the leaflet saying he would be doing that night's performance) so I must make a mention that for someone who obviously hadn't worked on the show nearly as much as the other actors, played the character very well, exhibiting the "know-it-all-because-he-usually-does" that we have come to expect of a Holmes character, but in a fun manner that allowed for him to be entertaining. Hallman embraces the sorrow that Watson feels for the loss of his wife, blaming himself for her death, since he was unable to cure her. As he finds himself drawn to solve a case that might bring him closer to the threshold of the hereafter, and therefore his wife, he meets a myriad of strange and beguiling characters, from the strange Mortimer (Elizabeth Stewart) who is indeed odd yet in many ways delightful, to the bizarre Mrs. Hudson/Mrs. Barrymoore (brilliantly played by Meredith Dillard) to the fiendish Stapelton (Blaine Peltier). Althought there were times that I felt Hallman was allowing himself to be mired in what was supposed to be depressing his character and not always taking in the other actors as much as he could have, sort of holding onto his prep and being resigned to depression when there were moments of levity that could have been shared with other characters, I overall truly enjoyed his performance, and felt his anguish was palpable. Dillard and Stewart were a joy to watch as they created characters that stuck in the mind of this almost surreal world that director Rachel Klein has laid out for us.
With a spartan set that had no real furniture to speak of except for the delightful easel with cue cards indicating where the characters were at any given time "back at the study" or "the next morning at breakfast", Klein allowed the characters to have free reign to follow impulses and make big choices in their work (or at least it seemed that way from my eye - and regardless it being a directorial or actor choice, it was great) - it allowed the audience to go on this mythical journey with Watson (and Holmes, always nearby to save his friend) and focus on this otherworldly situation...and never question it. On the one hand it kept a reverent eye on Doyle's original piece, but took it to another level. I was reminded of an almost Tim Burton-esque world of Sherlock Holmes. It was indeed a treat.
Speaking of Otherworldly, this leads to one of my favorite things in the world: Vampires! And when I can have vampires, comedy, a playwright whose work I enjoy and an actor whose work is tremendous all at the same time, I am a very happy camper. Suckers was directed by Duncan Pflaster as well as written by him, and I was excited to see how that was going to work. Having recently seen his amazing Ore, or Or, I was interested to see what he was going to do with my zeal for the Ol' Fanged Ones. I was not disappointed. Pflaster did not take himself seriously at all in this piece, and it allowed the actors - and the characters - to again, as in the above discussed piece, make full, dynamic choices that made the evening so much fun to watch. When an innocent couple is taken to a coffee house by a not-so-innocent couple of vampires on the pretense of good books, a happening scene, and great coffee (while taking a small shot at pretentious coffee houses, which I adored), they actually go to the lair of the leader of a vampire clan, the absolutely fabulous Elvis (Shawn McLaughlin), who is looking for an equal to stand by his side and be his queen. His boy toy David (Joe Fanelli) is too busy living in a world where he is the star of a musical, and Elvis is drawn instead to Romaine (Paula Galloway) because she is an intellectual who is strong in spirit as well as a born leader. As the other vampires in his lair are plotting his downfall, he tries to make her see the benefits of being a vampire - and that two queens are better than one! (Moments like that in the play are so much fun).
There are fabulous moments of his hypnotizing her with sound effects, and a goth coffee barrista (Eric C. Bailey) who is under cover to undo the undead. It's a delightfully campy ride all the way from beginning to end. What steals the show for me, entirely, is Shawn McLaughlin. I saw him previously in Pflaster's Ore, or Or, and it is clear to me that no matter what type of play he is doing, be it a concerned gay roommate or the delightfuly gay and diabolical Vampire, he has a quality that allows him to use his humor and way with the text to have fun on stage with his fellow characters and the audience. I look forward to seeing more of his work, in other kinds of pieces. I applaud Pflaster for directing in a way that allowed the actors to have so much fun on stage that the audience could do nothing but go along for the ride and enjoy themselves as well. Though not profound like Pflaster's other piece that I've mentioned several times now, it wasn't supposed to be. Sometimes it's great to just be prolific and allow the audience to eat it up like that great dessert you put off because of the calories but you finally give in and are so happy you did.
Hound and Suckers were both presented as part of The Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, now closed. To learn more about the Festival, visit www.PlanetConnectionsFestivity.com