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Not-So-Blithe Spirit 

Theater Review: The Canterville Ghost

Published September 27, 2006 at 7:51 p.m.

An autumnal chill is creeping into the air, and a frightening array of Halloween candy lies in wait in the grocery aisles. The season seems ripe for a good ghost story. Central Vermont's new theater company, the Waterbury Festival Players, makes a spirited effort with Oscar Wilde's family-friendly phantom, The Canterville Ghost. But the results are uneven, owing in large part to a script that's dead on the page.

Wilde's 1887 tale is as charming and unconventional as the author himself. The English Lord Canterville is relieved to sell his family's ancient manor, along with its most troublesome contents: the ghost of Sir Simon Canterville, who murdered his wife back in the Elizabethan era. The new residents are rambunctious Yanks, and Sir Simon doesn't frighten the Otis family in the least. In fact, the Americans rather relish their acquisition of an ancestral apparition along with the house. A phantom with a pedigree has a certain cachet.

The young Otis twins taunt the Ghost with their own tricks, and Mr. Otis recommends helpful remedies to Sir Simon so he can rattle his chains more quietly. The Ghost is gravely offended. He is, after all, a proper Englishman - albeit a dead one - with standards and duties. The Americans are interfering with the conscientious execution of his supernatural obligations. Only teenaged daughter Virginia Otis seems sympathetic to his plight, and she ultimately helps him resolve his purgatorial predicament.

Wilde's short story, written after an extended tour of the United States, is in part a wry satire of cultural conflict: the humorous collision of ingrained English snobbery with fresh-faced American naiveté. The biggest problem with the Waterbury Festival Players' production was the use of Darwin Reid Payne's clumsy 1963 adaptation of Wilde's tale. Payne's dramatization drains Wilde's lively writing of its vigor and wit and excises many delightful lines and scenes. The result accomplishes the almost unimaginable feat of dulling Wilde's sharp insight and flattening his arch dialogue into a leaden stage exercise.

Payne short-circuits the arc of the Ghost's emotional journey, which is the heart of the story's humor and the source of the plot's dramatic tension. In Wilde's original, Sir Simon gets angry and then indignant as the Americans fail to accord him respect by seeming even slightly spooked. The Ghost exhausts centuries' worth of his best material trying to scare the uncouthly confident Americans, only to have them respond with polite amusement or indifference. Finally he sinks into depression. But Payne's text removes the engaging escalation of conflict and cuts straight to a dispirited Spirit, annoyingly whiny and ready to give up his illustrious career.

Despite this handicap, a quartet of performances in the Waterbury production rose above the weak script. The two strongest portrayals came from the two youngest actors: Alison Smith, 13, and Kelly Shaw, 10, as the troublemaking twins Marilyn and Maggie Otis. Their antics energized every scene in which they appeared. They got some of the evening's biggest laughs playing the Headless Knight (who was headed to the kitchen for cake) and pantomiming a poem from the Canterville family history that helps solve a mystery. They smoothly executed the numerous passages in which they had to say the same line in unison - no easy feat.

As the ghost of Sir Simon, Michael Manion gamely conjured as much playfulness as possible out of Payne's pained version of his character. He reveled in the Elizabethan cadences of speech, often interjecting "Gadzooks!" with particular glee. He created memorable character details, such as whistling while he worked (reapplying a bloodstain the Otises had removed) and whirling like a deranged dervish to become "invisible." He maximized the noisemaking potential of his frightfully heavy chains and later showed the softer side of a shade who at times seems afraid of his own shadow.

The manor's biggest 'fraidy cat, however, is harried housekeeper Mrs. Umney, who repeatedly faints from fright. Martha Walton played the mob-capped matron with the appropriate combination of maternal bustle and eternal vexation. Her eyes popped with fear and darted with wariness, capturing the servant's struggle to do her job well while wondering, "What's next?" from her nemesis, Sir Simon.

The remaining four members of the cast gave sub-par performances: stilted, unnuanced or lacking dimensions. Why didn't Lord Canterville (Jim Galvin) have an English accent? Why did Mr. Otis (James DeRienzo) maintain one expression - bemusement - for the entire play? It's difficult to discern whether these flaws represented poor directorial choices or weak acting. But it did seem that the actors who performed better had more to do on stage - places to go, props to manipulate. That part of the show is the director's responsibility. Perhaps giving these characters more action also gave freer range to their emotional expression.

Director George Pierce, who is also the artistic and managing director of the Waterbury Festival Players, has set the lofty goal of "semiprofessional" theater for the new company. He defines this as "a more challenging environment" for talented actors to hone their craft than community theater provides. Pierce plans to fill a niche between local amateur troupes and professional companies. The goal is to stage four to five shows a year, with a mix of adult and family plays - no musicals - running from summer through early fall. (The playhouse is unheated.)

The Canterville Ghost demonstrated that, in terms of acting, the Festival Players still have a long way to go to separate themselves from the community-theater pack. But this is only their second show; they launched in August with Michael Frayn's farce Noises Off. And Pierce backs his enthusiasm with a serious level of commitment. When he bought land for his computer business, he made sure it was also suited to building the theater. The resulting structure is a playhouse in a permanent tent - a funky venue that works surprisingly well. And Pierce is offering a full refund to anyone who doesn't like a show. "We're putting our money where our mouth is," he says.

In contrast to the mixed quality of the acting, the professionalism of The Canterville Ghost's production elements was astonishing for such a new venue. Technical goblins would be understandable at this early stage, but Pierce and company seem to have smoked them out. Elaborate sound, lighting and special effects cues went off without a hitch. A large central staircase, flanked by portraits of Sir Simon and his murdered spouse, dominated the set, which evoked a dark Tudor manor. Pierce used the black scrim behind the stairs to create some spooky razzle-dazzle.

The crew featured many Pierces - Matthew as stage manager, Ginger handling costumes and Sean sound effects. Perhaps some of the show's surface polish comes from making the behind-the-scenes teamwork a family affair. Despite the shortcomings of this play's script and acting, the Waterbury Festival Players seem to be off to an energetic start. By the time they think about staging The Canterville Ghost again, maybe they'll be in a position to dump Payne's dull text and commission a fresh dramatization of Wilde's bewitching story.

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Elisabeth Crean


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