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Vol. LXI, No. 25
 
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
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Music/Theater

I DON'T WANT HIM TO MARRY THAT WOMAN!: Witch Gillian (Shannon Lee Clair, right) is trying to decide which spells to use from her armory of sorcery in order to persuade Shep Henderson (John Hardin) to break off his engagement and impending wedding and marry her instead.

Bewitched, Bothered and in Love in “Bell, Book and Candle”; Summer Theater Opener Features Witchcraft, Comedy, Romance

Donald Gilpin

The language of love and the language of magic and witchcraft have always overlapped. Humankind in its eternal struggle to comprehend the irrational, inexplicable workings of the human heart has always resorted to references to the supernatural, the occult. The ancient Greeks and Romans, in their attempt to account for the power of love, created a god, Eros or Cupid, with his arrows shooting into unsuspecting hearts. Oberon and Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream wreak havoc with their magic spells and flowery love potions, helping the Bard to illustrate that “the course of true love never did run smooth” and that “reason and love keep little company together nowadays.” And without even thinking that we are speaking figuratively and comparing our desires and attractions to magical phenomena, we speak of being “bewitched” or “enchanted” or “spellbound” by the “charms” of another.

John Van Druten takes the metaphor a step or two further in Bell, Book and Candle (1950) and creates a romantic comedy in which the main character, an arty, attrac- tive Manhattan native, must decide whether to carry out her life as a witch or give up her supernatural powers and follow true love amidst the vicissitudes of the human world.

Bell, Book and Candle opens Princeton Summer Theater’s thirty-fifth season in a stylish, skillfully staged production at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Guest director Lileana Blain-Cruz, a 2006 Princeton graduate, who has worked as an assistant director at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C during the past year, has enlisted her Arena Stage colleague Allen Grimm as tech director, lighting designer, and set designer, and has assembled a strong, mostly undergradu- ate cast.

Production values here are impressive, and the performers are consistently articulate, focused, and credible. Although Mr. Van Druten’s script doesn’t always provide this talented company with the strongest material to work with, the romantic twists and turns and the clever interweavings of the world of witchcraft and the world of 1950s normality provide an engaging and amusing evening.

Where the plot creaks is not so much in the potentially problematic half century gap since the play was first staged (In 1950 it ran for 233 performances on Broadway with Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, then became a moderately successful 1958 movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak.), but in its length — more than two and one half hours — and a few too many witch-related machinations, which undermine the audience’s investment in the plight of the central romantic characters.

"Bell, Book and Candle" will run June 21-24, with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday in the Hamilton Murray Theater. Call (609) 258-7062 for information.

Set in a well-appointed Murray Hill apartment in the East Thirties, Bell, Book and Candle is the story of Gillian Holroyd (Shannon Lee Clair), one of a group of people, including her impish brother (Daniel Kublick) and her eccentric Aunt Queenie (Heather May), who can all cast spells and perform supernatural feats.

The romance ignites rapidly when Gillian casts a spell on her upstairs neighbor, handsome publisher Shep Henderson (John Hardin), partly because she is attracted to him and partly because she wants to sabotage Shep’s impending engagement to an old rival. But witches can’t blush or shed tears or feel true love, and Gillian risks los- ing all her powers and witch status if she succumbs to that most complex human emotion.

Gillian quickly discovers that love is powerful magic indeed, but she faces significant conflicts, including a slew of supernatural trickery, from her warlock brother and unpredictable aunt. Sidney Redlitch (Andy Hoover), a writer who wants Shep to publish his book on modern-day witchcraft, joins the mix, but does not even realize that he is in the center of a lively colony of witches.

Ms. Clair creates a strong central character here, believable and sympathetic in shifting between her two worlds of enchantment and the reality of true love. If the audi- ence has difficulty in caring deeply about this young woman, the fault lies more with the script than with the actress. Mr. Van Druten’s The Voice of the Turtle (1943), produced at Princeton Summer Theater two years ago, and his I Am a Camera (1951), later adapted as Cabaret (1966), more fully engage the audience, without the interferences, albeit entertaining, of extensive occult trickery.

Mr. Hardin plays a strong romantic lead, contrasting effectively with Gillian and her assortment of unconventional cohorts who surround them. Mr. Kublick is appropriately playful and funny as the brother who never quite got over his adolescence. He takes advantage of his magical powers for all sorts of clever mischief.

Ms. May’s kooky, paranormal aunt provides suitable amusing distractions for the audience and frustrations for the protagonist, and Mr. Hoover’s intoxicated writer is an interesting, high-energy addition to the capable, entertaining ensemble.

Ms. Blain-Cruz, in following W.C. Fields’ advice, “Never work with animals or children,” has cast a stuffed animal instead of a live one in the role of Gillian’s feline familiar Pywacket, and Ms. Clair handles the furry stage prop convincingly. Ms. Blain-Cruz’s direction keeps the play moving briskly, despite the long script and one or two tedious moments. The accomplished professional hands of Ms. Blain-Cruz and Mr. Grimm are evident in the telling details of the realistic, well appointed set and lighting, in the stylish costuming (designed by Ms. May) and the polished special effects.

Princeton Summer Theater’s Bell, Book and Candle provided a light, enjoyable evening for its large, appreciative audiences on PST’s opening weekend in this first of four summer 2007 productions. Fans of the popular TV series “Bewitched,” which ran from 1964-1972, then long afterwards in re-runs, will especially relish the witty witchery and recognize the strong influences of Mr. Van Druten’s play.

The title Bell, Book and Candle refers to an ancient Roman Catholic ritual of excommunication in which the priests concluded by ringing a bell (a death knell), closing a book, snuffing out a candle and knocking them all to the floor to signify the sinner’s separation from God and the church. Fortunately, Gillian’s ultimate departure from the world of witchcraft into the world of conventional love and marriage provides a much happier outcome and a promising start to PST’s 2007 season.

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