Sept. 27, 2008 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall
The Canterville Ghost now playing at Shakespeare and Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre is based, very loosely, on a novella by Oscar Wilde in which an American family moves into an old English castle inhabited by a three hundred year old ghost whose antics to scare them away only provoke them into calmly offering him brand-name oil to quiet the creaking of his chains, and a commercial rug cleaner to remove the nightly blood spots from the living room rug.
They even scoff derisively when the poor ghost, who steals from the children’s paint box to create his magic horror, runs out of red and is forced to substitute green. (For Irishman Wilde, a witty little patriotic thrust.)
The poor ghost is driven to employing every scary device and costume he can concoct, all to no avail, until, in a gentle coda to the novella, Virginia, the youngest and thus most innocent child, pities him and bravely leads him to peace and release.
Wilde’s story has been adapted to into various versions over the years, including musicals, none of which this reviewer has read or seen, but it is possible none as been as fantastically modified as that now playing on the Bernstein Stage.
Director Irina Brook’s approach has been improvisational, reading from the Wilde script and letting the actors whirl off on their own. The process has created a script in which sub plots, extra characters, and drastic time changes have five actors whirl in a very broad, over-the-top, comedy full of song, dance, and slapstick.
The press-night audience seemed delighted. I fear my response was muted. I found it wild more than Wilde and found myself grateful whenever a bit of real Wilde rapier dialog found its way into the script.
However for me, the evening had two bright spots—the incredible performances of Michael Hammond, an actor whose talents I have admired for years, and the free-flowing attitude of director Irma Brook, full obviously of a love of theatre and its possibilities, even though the choices she made in this production did not work out for me.
Hammond, as the Ghost and the housekeeper Mrs. Umley, gives us two characters, each magnificently achieved. His agile and contorted body, his incredible facial expressions, are beyond description; his whipping in and out of characters, in and out of costumes, and in and out of speech patterns is a real tour-de-force. For a book-sacred actor of years of creating characters as “sacred” as Prospero and Iago, what he has achieved in this production is incredible. For me, he saved the evening. How he, physically, will have to sustain the mad pace of these varied characters for an extended run would seem to be a daunting task.
However, this supporting cast seem a willing crew, talented, if over the top, willing to sing, dance and cavort merrily through the play and throw themselves with gusto in creating something new, at times in a surprisingly creative way. And some of the dialog achieved a Wildean thrust.
As for Ms Brooks, although I could not go along with her take on Texans, and found the script too busy, she brings an exciting, fresh talent into the Berkshires, and I am eager to see what she’ll do next.