The Canterville Ghost by Anne Brownsted (and the ensemble) based on the novella by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Irina Brook
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"The Otis Family Guinea-Pigs"
"Tour de force" - what does it mean?: "A feat requiring great virtuosity or strength, often deliberately undertaken for its difficulty," says my dictionary. Such is the result of the process undertaken at Shakespeare and Company for their autumn production, a new version of the early Oscar Wilde story, "The Canterville Ghost." While it takes a sense of virtuosic playing to create a work with at least fifteen characters played by five people, it also takes the talents and skills pf those actors to make such playing worthwhile and the company here is partially successful with three of the company doing wonderfully and two not quite up to the task.
But first, a sense of the story. Wilde’s 1887 short fiction work pitted a family of Americans - with four children including twins - living in an old English Manor House against the house-ghost, a sixteenth century nobleman who finds in the culture-clash more than enough reason to haunt and frighten the occupants of his ancestral estate. It is a comic piece, intentionally. The ghost of Sir Simon de Canterville is a rather inept figure, at least in the late 19th century. The battle is eventually won (I won't say by whom) and the prize is the son of the young, current Lord Canterville who resolves all problems by wooing and marrying the young daughter of the American Minister working in London and living in his family’s manse. She, Virginia Otis, wins his heart and the long-hidden family jewels that are much prized and much sought by the Cantervilles. Essentially everybody wins, even the ghost who is finally granted an eternal peace.
Wilde did his best to capture the qualities of the Americans he had met during his tour of this country. The Americans he drew are nowhere near as grotesquem nor the over-the-top jingoists that Brownsted, Brook and the bunch are presenting on stage in Lenox, MA. Caricature abounds in this production - abounds and almost out-of-bounds, although now that a real frontier woman is running for a national leadership position I may be the one out of bounds in this literal judgement.
Over the last century the story has been fiddled with many times. In this new version, directed by Irina Brook, the show is considerably updated and the American family are presented as a rather startling family of Texans who have purchased their way into the house and plan to turn it into a haunted house theme park. When a hypnotist, who seems to already haunt the place, turns them into the 1940s versions of themselves the story takes up the traditional mould of the Wilde original transplanted almost into the period of the Hollywood film version that starred Charles Laughton, Margaret O’Brien and Robert Young. Country music gives way to "Dancing at the Savoy"; western duds are replaced with dresses and hats. A softness comes back into the play that would otherwise be missing. So does a bizarre sense of confusion, unfortunately, for the ending of the play is somewhat hard to discern. We don’t really know which family, which Virginia, is responsible for the ultimate turn of events, for the crown of jewels reward.
Apparently a great deal of experimentation and improvisation went into the procedure. The script was developed during the rehearsal period and sometimes things created on the spot were made permanent and sometimes they should not have been made so definitive. A lot of what happens on stage is funny and should definitely be saved and used. But now we’re at the "tour de force" consideration so let us go directly to it.
Dana Harrison plays the eldest contemporary Otis girl and also Lucretia Otis, the wife of the 1946-48 Hiram Otis. Her two principal characters are wonderfully different and her Lucretia is particularly endearing. As her sister Chastity, and also her son Washington in that earlier era, Alexandra Lincoln does an excellent job of keeping the two different. There is a nice setup for this sex change in characters during the hypnotist’s show which opens the evening, but even so Lincoln does a surprisingly good job of being the teen-aged boy. She also plays the "twins’ from the original story, but this time they are Washington’s hand-puppet playmates.
Michael F. Toomey is the two Hirams. They are not the same person, and not played as the same person, but Toomey is harder to alter. His physical characteristics make him much more difficult to multi-cast for so little is really changeable. He is good in both roles but they are so much more interchangeable that only the costumes and the company he keeps make any visible difference.
The two Virginias are played by Alyssa Hughlett and, once again, her two characters emerge as the same one so it really doesn’t matter which one she is playing. Luckily both Virginia’s dance and Hughlett dances wonderfully well with a gusto, joy and gymnastic flare that truly sets her apart from so many other actresses. She is pretty and has a sweet voice, but her dancing is really what rivets your attention and admiration and respect.
This foursome also plays a quartet of inept, dead magicians who come at the Ghost’s request to find a way to shake up the 1940s Otis family. Here, with deeply different costumes changes, they are all marvelously new and newly invented.
The big "T-de-F" is the challenge handed to Michael Hammond. As the hypnotist, the two Cantervilles and the housekeeper, Mrs. Umney, he is forever changing costumes, demeanors, voices, accents, tempos and even facial expressions. I say "even" because Hammond has a charming smile that he uses so often on stage it is almost a cliche. This summer his evil Iago smiled more than the Cheshire Cat grins in Alice in Wonderland. Here that smile is often perceivably a grimace, a sneer, a smile, a lurid lip-line, a tremble and an egress for accents that define his principal characters perfectly. There are times in this play when his exits and entrances are so snappy that it amazes me that he can even begin to remember who he is, where he is and why.
Hammond never makes this constant set of quick transitions look easy. It is very obvious at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theater, where no seat is more than five rows from the playing area, that the man’s perspiration is absolutely real and clearly deserved. He is working very hard, perhaps too hard in this instance, to make something viably understandable out of this semi-improvised mish-mash: today vs. yesterday vs. the day before yesterday.
There is really no reason to have a modern-day Otis family when the one in the actual story would do. Doing so, especially with the surprise ending in the wardrobe - so to speak - only serves to confuse the ending, creating an instability for the audience. There is also no viable payoff for the modern Virginia who may, or may not, have been the person responsible for the seemingly happy ending. The lack of a really concrete script seems to have also given the audience and actors nowhere to go in the final moments. Virginia gets the jewels, but who really knew there were any to get. No one gets married at the end, but that may be all right, because sisters can’t wed anyway and who else is there?
Shelby Rodger has done a nice job with the costumes and Katy Monthei has used the large expanse of playing space to arrange her set design capabilities. The lighting by Tina Louise Jones is very handsomely designed giving the minor special effects their due and the players their necessary lights.
This is an enjoyable romp for families in need of a different, a unique, experience. It is not perfect theater, not a perfect play by any means. However if a few thrills, some magical effects, a silly set of performances and/or an evening about life-force "tour de force" ghosts is your thing, then this is for you. Personally I am glad I saw it. It’s given me a new perspective on a few people and a new idea on dealing with the ghosts that haunt my own life. May the "force" be with you.
Michael Hammond as The Canterville Ghost; photo: Kevin Sprague
The Family Otis, escorted by the Count, arrive; photo: Kevin Sprague
Alyssa Hughlett as Virginia (s); photo: Kevin Sprague
The Canterville Ghost plays at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox MA through November 9. Tickets are $48 but there are some special rates available. Performances are at 7:30pm with 2pm matinees and a series of 11:00am special performances as well. For full schedules and availability please call the box office at 413-637-3353.