THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Theater Review

Fun ghost story is Wilde at heart

Sir Simon de Canterville (Michael Hammond) tries to frighten Washington Otis (Alexandra Lincoln). Sir Simon de Canterville (Michael Hammond) tries to frighten Washington Otis (Alexandra Lincoln). (Kevin Sprague ©2008)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / October 4, 2008
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LENOX - More silly than scary, "The Canterville Ghost" is an ideal family entertainment for the fall spooky season. It won't frighten the little children, it won't bore the older ones, and it even provides a dash of simple but effective theatricality for the adults in the party.

Irina Brook, who has just moved from Paris to Great Barrington to become Shakespeare & Company's first director in residence, adapted the piece from a short story by Oscar Wilde. Working with assistant director and adapter Anna Brownsted and with the show's cast, Brook has preserved the style and spirit of the original tale, which centers on an old English ghost who's driven to despair when he can't scare off his mansion's latest owners, a passel of unspookably pragmatic Americans.

The story has a very Wildean mix of sly satire and romantic melancholy, with the initial jabs at both materialistic Americans and tradition-embalmed Brits gradually giving way to a more sentimental tale of the ancient and murderous ghost seeking redemption through the innocent purity of the family's youngest daughter. Brook's adaptation attempts a similar shift, but it's a little trickier onstage, where the Victorian music-hall trappings and cheaply amusing magic tricks that make a delightful backdrop for the early shenanigans don't fit so smoothly with the more sentimental ending.

Still, Brook and her troupe have a lot of fun along the way - and, at just 90 intermissionless minutes, neither the silliness nor the sweetness ever becomes overbearing. Michael Hammond, the Shakespeare & Company associate artistic director who most recently made a chillingly charming Iago in this season's "Othello," plunges wholeheartedly into the title role here. Outrageously theatrical and frequently hysterical, Hammond's ghostly Sir Simon de Canterville has the seedy, threadbare air of a ghost who's been hiding in a moth-infested cupboard just a little too long.

That slightly passe quality is just what Wilde's ghost requires, and it makes a hilarious contrast with the dismayingly up-to-date Americans - both the larger-than-life Texans who first encounter the ghost as tourists touring the manse, in a framing story that's wholly the play's invention, and then as the ancestors of those tourists who live through the events of the original story.

With a few changes, of course: Perhaps to make it easier to see them as hardboiled moderns, Brook has moved the time of the story from Wilde's late 19th century to sometime between the 20th's two world wars. A subplot or so has dropped away, and the role of the housekeeper, Mrs. Umrey, has been expanded - to great comic effect, as Hammond, switching his rusty topcoat for mobcap and pinafore, plays the role to the hilt.

There's also a whole new sequence in which the ghost, tired of watching the American Otis family clean up his spectral bloodstains and offer oil for his clanking chains, consults a few ghostly colleagues. Like him, they all have the air of faded stage magicians, and fairly incompetent ones at that. It's a funny conceit - especially as each new conjurer emerges from the ghost's creaky old armoire - though it might go on a bit longer than it needs to.

Michael F. Toomey, as the bourgeois paterfamilias, makes the strongest impression of the American interlopers. But they're all pretty much irresistibly funny in an early sequence that has the Texan family, complete with boots and Stetsons, performing "Achy Breaky Heart."

No, Oscar Wilde might not recognize that one. But he'd have to applaud the festive spirit of invention that brought it into his tale.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

The Canterville Ghost

Play adapted by Irina Brook and Anna Brownsted with the ensemble from the story by Oscar Wilde

Directed by: Brook. Set, Katy Monthei. Lights, Tina Louise Jones. Costumes, Shelby Rodger. Sound, Michael Pfeiffer.

At: Shakespeare & Company, Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, through Nov. 9. Tickets, $48, 413-637-3353, www.shakespeare.org

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