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I saw a preview of Phil Johnson and Cynthia Stokes' work-in-progress. Johnson, in fact, was performing before his first live audience. So this won't be a "review" in any formal sense. Just two heartfelt plugs.

The first, for the enterprise. Phil Johnson's one of the funniest actors around. He's found the vehicle to showcase his talent. He plays all 21 characters in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's dark and stormy — and precisely literate — tale of mayhem on the foggy moors of Devonshire.

Johnson plays each with warm-spirited reverence and — and somehow pulls it off — with a style so broad it's "wide load." To label it overstatement's an understatement. Call it a gentle madness.

His Sherlock Holmes is bulls-eye terse (and so prophetic it's as if he's already read the book). At the other extreme, Johnson makes Laura Lyons, the disowned daughter, an over-the-top, hilarious homage to every performer eager for their close-up, Mr. DeMille — and yet sincere as well.

Johnson and director Stokes, who conceived the project, keep the suspense alive and feather in lines that add a comic commentary throughout. Lyons, for example, has a hook for a right hand and has somehow earned a living as a "journeyman typist." Often these interjections have a delayed effect. The story moves on and you suddenly realize, "wait a sec...typist?"

Sherrice Kelly's lighting and Ruff Yeager's eerie sounds help create Baskerville Hall and its environs. They are also melodramatic enough to grant Johnson the freedom to release his hounds and frolic where actors fear to tread.

The second plug.

Chicago supports its artists (Tracy Letts, the playwright, had the time to advance his craft). Seattle does, too. And Minneapolis. They nurture home-grown talent so much it's become difficult for artists outside their cities to break in.

San Diego falls miles behind. Which is why so many artists leave.

Baskervilles was made possible by the San Diego Foundation's Creative Catalyst Fund. A year ago, the foundation did a survey and discovered that many of San Diego's most creative people leave for Los Angeles or New York. In an effort to keep more here, the Creative Catalyst Fund came into being. It combines an individual artist, or artists, with a nonprofit arts organization (Johnson and Stokes with the North Coast Rep, for example) and gives innovative local projects financial support and a home to develop.

Long may it wave!


North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach, playing through May 6.

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