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THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES

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The Sherlock Holmes addict will quickly observe that this is a loose adaptation of the Conan Doyle novel. What's left to deduce, through our own pale copies of Holmes' keen powers, is whether the adaptation works—as theatre and as a modernization. Playwright Tim Kelly switches genders of the supporting characters; the physician who initially brings Holmes the case is in this production a woman, and another twist finds another female character having a greater share in the mystery. Kelly also updates the 1880s story to the present, but director Darlene Hunter-Chaffee compromises, returning the action to 1914.

The production has a unified look. Costumes "coordinated" by Donna Fritsche are appealing and in fact enhance our understanding of the characters (a lady who appears in a home wearing a hat must be a visitor, as no lady wears a hat in her own home). Wigs and jewelry are period correct, and upper-class shoes are polished; set decoration is eye catching but not distracting. But accents are haphazard, and the trouble it takes to ponder possible reasons (perhaps the maid comes from Ireland; the young landowner spent time in America; the housekeeping staff may have been educated elsewhere) only distracts. The curtain lines were sometimes delivered so matter-of-factly that even the applause-happy audience members weren't sure the scene was ending. These lines are high melodrama: "The terror… is prowling on the moor again" needs a broad, lingering reading. And the action needs to be restaged or the area reconfigured so the production is fully visible to all audience members; the visuals should not be a mystery.

Andrew J. Diaz, as the Baskerville heir Sir Henry, creates a pensive young man but persistently drops the end of his lines. As Henry's love interest Kathy Stapleton, Sarah Holbert is wonderfully lively and giggly when her character is being "good," darkly manic and hysterical when being "bad." As Watson, Malcom Armstrong certainly plays an Englishman with ease, the native also offering a warm stage presence and natural reactions (except for an oddly cold one to a death that, even as a physician, Watson would have found unnerving). Gerry Fuentes plays Lady Agatha Mortimer (f.k.a. James Mortimer) with authority and an upper-class physicality. Ashley Adams gives the maid a ditziness that might not make this character employable in real life but adds balance to the intellects of the other characters. Ann Ross and Jerome Loeb create the mysterious retainers; James Jaeger plays Stapleton, fiction's best-known lepidopterist, and Kelli Tager stepped in last minute to flesh the flirtatious Laura Lyons.

Still, it's Holmes we've come to see. Gary Page portrays the world's most famous detective, and he certainly has ample text to explore from which to create his character. There's little of Holmes' brilliance here, and less of his driven (sometimes by narcotics) personality and irritatingly antisocial nature. But why Page chose to portray him as more a New Englander than an Englishman remains the greatest mystery of the night.

"Hound of the Baskervilles," presented by and at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Dec. 1-16, Jan. 5-20. $15. (562) 494-1014.

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