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The Sign of the Four
by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: adapted by Terry McCabe from the story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. At: City Lit Theater at Edgewater. Presbyterian Church, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr. Phone: 773-293-3682; $25. Runs through: July 3

Page-to-stage translations of material dating from a time when print comprised the sole vehicle for mass communication are often difficult to bring off. Take, for example, this second in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's series featuring his master detective, Sherlock Holmes: Our plot begins with Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. Watson, approached by an orphaned governess seeking the identity of an anonymous benefactor who may also harbor a grudge against her now-deceased father. Holmes is intrigued by the intellectual challenge, Watson is smitten by the winsome supplicant and both vow to solve the mystery.

After encountering an array of eccentric personalities from all levels of Victorian London's social spectrum, as well as a brush with a locked-room murder involving exotic weapons and a thrilling boat-chase on the Thames in pursuit of their quarry, they capture the culprit responsible for these bizarre events. In a play conceived as a play, this would conclude the dramatic action, leaving only a short epilogue for Holmes to revel in his success and Watson to declare his romantic intentions. Doyle, however, insists on the perpetrator of the fatal crimes first revealing the circumstances leading up to his arrest.

A full 30 minutes of straightforward second-act exposition conducted among three men seated in a parlor presents no problems in prose, but can seem like an eternity in live-performance time. Fortunately, Terry McCabe's adaptation provides us visual interest as the facts are brought to light, by means of the personnel figuring in the miscreant's confession silently and simultaneously acting his serpentine yarn of stolen riches, thwarted plans, prison colonies and blood oaths. Thus are playgoers of non-literary bent relieved from protracted verbal discourse.

This device will prove unnecessary for whodunit fans, Victorian Lit aficionados and Sherlock Holmes groupies (an audience base numbering in the millions). Let's not forget, either, the drawing power of Don Bender, repeating for the third time his portrayal of the supersleuth, ably flanked by Jerry Bloom as the phlegmatic Dr. Watson (stepping into the role vacated by the late Will Schutz), who together evade cliché to infuse their familiar personae with fresh nuance. A sturdy supporting company and clever low-budget technical effects—notably James Ogden's astonishingly versatile turntable—also guarantee an entertaining evening for City Lit first-timers.

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