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MysteryFest Won't Lose Its English Accent

July 02, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUNTINGTON BEACH — Golden West College's MysteryFest is well acquainted with British accents. The program, now in its 12th year, has become something of a showcase for Agatha Christie, the undisputed queen of the whodunit.

This year, the festival retains an English twang by offering a play adapted from the writing of Christie's countryman, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. "The Crucifer of Blood," based on a pastiche of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes adventures (especially "The Sign of the Four"), opens tonight at the campus's Mainstage Theatre.

"The Crucifer of Blood" is the second of the series's three dramas (Christie's "A Murder Is Announced" opened June 18 and continues through July 10 in the Patio Theater, and "Tom Sawyer, Detective" runs July 15-24, also in the Patio). It is the first time the MysteryFest has brought Holmes and his befuddled sidekick, Dr. Watson, to its stage.

"We've been thinking of doing (something by Doyle) for a while, but never could find just the right vehicle," said Charles Mitchell, a Golden West theater arts professor who will direct all three productions. "This seems the best of the Holmes' adaptations, so we decided to take a chance."

The play, adapted by Paul Giovanni and first produced in 1978 on Broadway, opens with a prologue set in colonial India. Three British officers steal a chest of jewels and sign an oath of secrecy in blood. Thirty years later, a daughter of one of the thieves arrives at Holmes' Baker Street home telling of her father's panic over an apparition at his window.

This just happens to coincide with the prison release of the only crook arrested during the heist. Intrigued by the girl's tale, Holmes and Watson agree to take the case.

"The one in jail has been double-crossed, you see, and has a reason for revenge," Mitchell explained. "I don't want to give away many of the details, but Holmes has to stop the killer and figure out what happened those many years ago."

"The Crucifer of Blood," which in 1991 became a TV movie starring Charlton Heston, is the biggest challenge the MysteryFest has faced, primarily because of the many set changes it requires, Mitchell noted.

The action moves from Holmes' Baker Street study to an opium den to a country mansion to a fort in India and to ships on the Thames River. To accommodate the scenes, Mitchell needed a larger space than the outdoor Patio Theater, the usual venue for MysteryFest productions.

"It's almost like a musical in the demands it places on the sets," he said. "I'm eager to see how it all works out."

There are also demands placed on the mostly student cast. The English accents always prove a test, and the actors must walk the line between drama and camp.

"These kinds of mysteries often have high comedy in them, but the characterizations can't go too far. We look at this as entertainment, but also a learning experience for the students."

The festival's final show, "Tom Sawyer, Detective," is the most family-oriented, Mitchell said. He should know: He adapted it for the stage from Mark Twain's novella of the same name.

*

Mitchell, who worked on the play "on and off" for about a year, said the story follows Tom and Huck Finn's adventures in Kentucky as they try to find a batch of missing jewels and solve a murder. The play lasts about an hour and should be suitable for kids 6 years or older, he added.

"For the first time in (the festival's) history, we have a mystery for the entire family. . . . It allows children the chance to participate in the guessing process."

The MysteryFest historically has been a successful summer venture, but, as it does every year, the theater arts department plans to evaluate it after the final performance of "Tom Sawyer, Detective." If the program fails to make enough money, it could be canceled.

"We started this as a way to offer a summer opportunity for our student actors, knowing it would pay for itself because the college doesn't give us any money for summer shows," Mitchell said.

"We've been doing well every year, but I have to admit that I'm surprised it's lasted this long," he said. "We'll see about the turnout, do some attendance research. We also wonder if three shows are too many. Hopefully, we'll be back, one way or another."

*"The Crucifer of Blood," an adaptation by Paul Giovanni, opens tonight at 8 in the Mainstage Theatre at Golden West College, 15744 Golden West St., Huntington Beach. The show continues Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through July 18. There will be no performance on Sunday. $9 to $10. (714) 895-8378.

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