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by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Agatha Christie

At: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue. Tickets: 773-753-4472;; $37.50-$84. Runs through: Feb. 16

Fans of The Mousetrap and other Agatha Christie masterworks are challenged not only to discover whodunit, but how they dunnit, which usually is so improbable ( although never quite impossible ) as to defy detection.

The Mousetrap itself ( the 1952 London original still is running ) receives surprisingly few professional productions, so this staging is a Chicago rarity. It's beautifully designed and amusingly acted but it's definitely eccentric, which isn't surprising given that the director is imaginative auteurist Sean Graney.

Graney's frequent approach with older classics—say, the Greeks or Gilbert & Sullivan—is to exaggerate characters in cartoon-like ways, while greatly stripping down the story and slashing the text. I call this the "Classics Illustrated" approach, referring to the once-popular, kid friendly comic book versions of great novels. But Graney can't touch The Mousetrap text—copyright law, y'know—so the physical production and character portrayals must do the job.

Alison Siple's colorful, playful costumes grab the most attention. They suggest no fixed time period, although the text suggests 1950s England. Mollie Ralston ( Kate Fry ) wears apropos and gorgeous late-1950s clothing, but exaggerations follow. Young architect Christopher Wren ( Alex Goodrich ) is in kinda-sorta late-1960s mod clothes; Major Metcalf ( Lyonel Reneau ) wears a comic operetta military uniform; Mrs. Boyle ( Carolyn Ann Hoerdemann ) sports a loud leopard-patterned outfit; and mysterious Mr. Paravicini ( David Cerda, in a rare time-out from Hell in a Handbag Productions ) is utterly fantastic in purple floral shorts and jacket. Most men wear tight trousers ending above the ankle, with ankle high lace-up boots. The question is why? The costumes are amusing but do little to enhance the characters or context.

Scenic designer Arnel Sancianco handsomely depicts the high, wide main room of Monkswell Manor in black, white and gray with appropriate massive stone fireplace, gothic door frames and marvelous chairs upholstered in black and white ( one with a skull pattern ). Still, there's exaggeration: One corner juts towards the audience, narrowing to a sharp point with a tiny radiator. It's a good joke, if intentional, about the shortcomings of English central heating.

As directed by Graney, the actors scarcely play realistic characters. Fry and Allen Gilmore ( as Mollie's husband Giles Ralston ) come closest, due to how their roles are written, and Tina Munoz Pandya ( Miss Casewell ) and Erik Hellman ( energetically on his toes as Sgt. Trotter ) are runners-up. Graney's approach is fun for a while, especially combined with the costume designs, but it fails to ratchet up the tension essential to the play, and the acting rings false when things turn solemn in Act II. The Mousetrap is real Agatha Christie, not one of many parodies, and perhaps Graney should consider that someone out there might not know whodunit or how.

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