The Canterville Ghost
It's all based upon a short story Oscar Wilde wrote more than a century ago. The plot begins as a family of extroverted, uninhibited Texans arrives at a manor in England. There they encounter a dyspeptic, odd, cranky, obnoxious hypnotist (Michael Hammond), who is not especially pleased with his visitors. This Lord Canterville, along with the Otis brigade, is transported backward six decades in time. The connecting link is the young Virginia (Alyssa Hughlett) whom Lord Canterville and his earlier "self," Sir Simon de Canterville (also Hammond), recollect from the past. Hammond's ghost (something like Scrooge on a bad day) tries his best to get rid of the tourists. All of this might seem confusing but is somewhat less so in person than on paper.
To watch the play is to free one's mind. The performers must have been liberated as they joined with director Brook to craft the script. Evidently, Brook utilized a good period of rehearsal for improvisation. The dialogue was a product of individual and group imagination and verbal expression.
This exploration seems something of a cousin to fifteenth and sixteenth century commedia dell'arte. That genre encouraged characters to make up lines, and the scenario was scripted through the process. Brook, moreover, develops flexible, pliable characters rather than one-dimensional types which were staples of the commedia form. The Canterville Ghost is lively, zany, and delightfully, at times, over the top.
It begins with Hammond who appears, solo, to "warm" the crowd. Facing forward, he says, "Let's talk about death, shall we?" Dressed by costumer Shelby Rodger in well-worn black top hat and coat to match, twirling a cane which doubles a transfixing baton, the actor demands rapt attention.
The play is also delightfully magical. The set is spare and the house chairs arranged so that theatergoers watch the proceedings along a lengthy, rectangular plane. This is not unlike the second stage space at New Haven's Long Wharf Theater. Brook pushes the pace and the story is filled with mime (vacant plates seem to be filled with items of food), and music, too. The becoming Hughlett, as Virginia, is a lyrical, skilled dancer who turns acrobatic flips early on. Her presence is pivotal as the Ghost is exorcised. It is she who says, finally, "Love is stronger than death."
Along the way, though, be prepared for all sorts of sight gags and shenanigans. The family, which includes talented actors Dana Harrison, Alexandra Lincoln and Michael Toomey (all assuming more than one role), dances and kicks up an irresistible and spirited storm. Thanks to set designer Katy Monthei and props designer Ian Guzzone (and others involved in furnishing props). Additionally, Gordon Hyatt serves as magic advisor, of likely significance during rehearsal time.
It is refreshing to partake in Irina Brook's creation. She and Anna Brownsted adapted the Wilde story and it is Brook who took the leap to permit her cast to find words and, subsequently, characters. This, in the most positive sense, is what making theater is all about.
The Canterville Ghost continues at Shakespeare & Company's new Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre in Lenox, Massachusetts, through November 9th. For ticket information, please call (413) 637-3353 or visit www.Shakespeare.org.
- Fred Sokol