Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2008
When I was ten, my parents enrolled me in a summer course in theater games and improvisation. My class worked for weeks on a little skit about a family of four going on a car trip, and I played the mother. On the day we were to give our only public performance, the actor playing the obnoxious little brother fell ill, and I was asked to switch roles. I asked the director what he wanted me to do, and he said I should behave very badly and make everyone’s life a misery, which I did – live and unrehearsed in front of an audience. I had a grand time. The rest of the cast wished I was dead. Until this afternoon I could only imagine what the audience thought.
As Irina Brook’s hopelessly muddled “adaptation” of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost unwound itself through a torturous and uninterrupted 90-minute performance, my eyes were opened and I saw what havoc untamed amateur improvisation can unleash.
Don’t get me wrong, there are fine actors on the stage, but there are only five of them and they are, by their own admission, not trained in, or comfortable with, improvisation. Shakespeare & Company has its own internationally renowned training program that focuses on text, which works well for them since they are first and foremost a SHAKESPEARE company and enabling both actors and audience to understand and embrace text written for a completely different time and culture is crucial.
Irina Brook, who is Shakespeare & Company’s first Director-in-Residence, likes to create theatre where none previously existed. This style, partly rooted in her formative years watching and participating in her father’s theatre work, has been very successful for her over the past decade while she has been living and working in Paris, France. She is not American by birth or life experience, but she has recently moved to Great Barrington and has expressed great joy at the combination of nature, culture, and family values she has found here. I am delighted she appreciates what an exceptional place Berkshire County, Massachusetts, is and I extend a hearty welcome to Brook, her husband, and their two children.
But Brook is still essentially a stranger in a strange land, and her techniques and style are vastly different from what Shakespeare & Company has done so successfully for the past 31 years.
Brook began her process with her actors and the text of Oscar Wilde’s 1887 short story. Wilde was a very successful playwright, but The Canterville Ghost, although deeply imbued with Wilde’s own inimitable theatricality, was not written for the stage. Wilde had traveled extensively in the United States and Canada in 1882-1883, and there is no doubt that he incorporated his impressions of Americans into this story of culture clash and two nations separated by a common language. Brook and her ensemble have handled this aspect of the story by turning the Otis Family into grossly stereotypical line dancing Texans, complete with rhinestone studded ten-gallon hats, cornpone accents, and less book learning than Jethro Bodine (we all know he went clean through the 6th grade!)
This oddly warped vision of Americans as outsiders reminds me of Bertolt Brecht’s “Chicago gangsters” in both Happy End and ...Mahagonny. All Brecht knew of Americans he’d learned from the movies. He was bringing his German aesthetic to creating caricatures of caricatures, but he was doing it for a German audience. Brook is parading her bent reflection before its originals. The effect is both eccentric and slightly offensive.
Brook has also transferred the action of this 1887 tale to both 2008 and 1940. The latter is vaguely comforting because Americans do have warm fuzzy feelings for the 1944 film version starring seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien, Robert Young, and Charles Laughton. But that version took great liberties with Wilde’s original in order to feature O’Brien, then at the height of her career, and to incorporate wartime patriotism for the Yanks and their close chums, the Brits.
Having started with Wilde’s text, Brook and her ensemble veered further and further away from it so that what is now on stage neither tells Wilde’s story nor the film’s story. As she has cast them, five actors are not enough to make it clear who is who and which century they are in.
Michael Hammond plays Sir Simon Canterville, aka The Canterville Ghost, but I never figured out whether he was dead or alive (seriously!) because he played several other characters as well. Where these others all Sir Simon who, as a specter, could change shape, or were they completely separate people? All during the performance I thought the former was the case, but after reading through my press kit I think I was supposed to believe the latter. If Sir Simon was dead and haunting Canterville Chase, as seemed likely from the title of the show, then why? Hauntings are usually attributed to some unfinished business of the dead, or a curse placed on them. But Sir Simon’s raison d’etre is never explained.
Hammond works tremendously hard as Sir Simon, the housekeeper Mrs. Umney, a coach man, an angry Hypnotist, and lord knows what else. He makes a great many theoretically scary faces and works up a real sweat. And all for what?
The crassly commercial Otis family, who seem to have made it big in pork, have purchased Canterville Chase and refuse to be scared away by Sir Simon’s antics. The problem is they very rarely confront each other. For instance, there’s a bloodstain on the dining room floor which has been there since Sir Simon murdered his wife on that spot three centuries earlier (earlier than 2008 or 1940??) The Otises whip out some new American commercial cleaners and Voila! no more unsightly blood stain. This infuriates Sir Simon who puts the stain back, so the Otises clean it, so he puts it back, so they clean it, so...all right, all ready! Who cares!? If they can buy an entire English estate can’t they afford a throw rug?
The Otises, both the 1940 and 2008 versions, are played by Michael Toomey (Hiram II/Hiram), Dana Harrison (Libby-Boo/Lucretia), Alexandra Lincoln (Chastity/Washington and the Twins), and Alyssa Hughlett (Virginia/Virginia).
Let me try to explain to you who Lincoln is playing. In Wilde’s version there are four Otis children – son Washington, daughter Virginia, and the twins. Here only Washington and Virginia are played by live actors. The twins are represented by little finger puppets Washington wears, one on each hand, and talks to. So in the 2008 Otis family Lincoln plays big sister Chastity, but in the 1940 Otis family she is Washington and the Twins. Huh? If the original twins were necessary to the plot, they should have been cast, and if they were unnecessary, as they seem to be, then they could be dispensed with completely. Lord knows enough other liberties have been taken! What we are left with is a woman playing a man who talks to finger puppets for no good reason.
When I saw Michael Toomey in Othello this summer I had a hard time not laughing every time he opened his mouth. When he is funny he is so very, very funny, and he makes me so very, very happy, that I want him to be funny even when I know he isn’t playing a comic role. So it says something profound that by the end of the first half-hour I was so numbed by the confusion and being hammered with broadly unfunny jokes that I was cured. I now longer laugh every time Michael Toomey speaks. I am not sure this is a good thing.
Harrison was saddled with characters so broad and silly that I didn’t care about them at all. Hughlett, who is an appealing young actress, did her best to make both Virginias different from their families, but failed to make them any different from each other. There was no relationship established between Virginia and Sir Simon until the very end, at which point she suddenly agrees to walk into the Garden of Death (which is accessed through a wardrobe, stage right) and reappears a few moments later with a tiara on her head. Apparently these are the long-lost family jewels, which no one has mentioned at all before nor are they explained when they finally appear. Since the 2008 Otis family seems no longer to own Canterville Chase (they come as tourists to see where their ancestors hung out for a while) I can’t understand what right they have to the jewels or why Sir Simon would give them to them. Oy!
This show is not scary and it’s not funny and it makes no sense. It is so bad that I am embarrassed to write this review, embarrassed for Shakespeare & Company which has always set high standards, embarrassed for the actors who are much better than this dreck, and embarrassed for the audiences who will be hoodwinked into spending precious time, money, and gasoline in search of seasonal family entertainment. It isn’t here, folks. Brook set out to create theatre where none existed and has succeeded only in creating a void where Berkshire audiences have come to expect the best.
The Shakespeare and Company production of The Canterville Ghost through August 30 in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, 70 Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs an hour and a half and is suitable for the whole family.
The new Elayne P. Bernstein theatre is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. Performances in the evenings begin at 7:30 p.m. and in the afternoons at 2:00 p.m. There are also morning performances at 11:00 a.m. on October 9, 16, 23, 30 and November 6. Seating is general admission, and tickets are $36 for previews and $48 for September 27th and all performances thereafter. For a complete listing of productions and schedules, to inquire about student, senior, Berkshire resident and Rush Tix, or to receive a brochure, please visit the website at www.shakespeare.org or call the Box Office at (413) 637-3353. For special group rates and activities, contact Group Sales Manager Victoria Vining at (413) 637-1199 ext. 132.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008