The Canterville Ghost at the Elayne Bernstein Theatre: Otherworldly and Hounded

David Begelman

Oscar Wilde had something to say about many of the pretensions of his day, not the least of which was the British pride of Empire. What better way to do this than to have English traditions bump heads with those crass folks from across the ocean, Americans?

Shakespeare and Company’s current production of The Canterville Ghost resurrects Wilde’s humorous spin on the enduring British preoccupation with ghosts. There’s a lesson to be learned about a departed aristocracy forever haunting dark corridors of musty castles. The conceit may be a metaphor for keeping an imperial past alive in an empire that fears the sun is fast setting on everything old and honored.

In his novella The Canterville Ghost, the Irish wit inaugurated a literary tradition of ghosts as put upons. However scary in past centuries, Wilde’s Sir Simon de Canterville has one hell of a time living up to the spine-tingling reputation he was supposed to cut in his haunted manor with its newest family of invaders from across the Atlantic.

In the current production, Michael Hammond, Assistant Director of Shakespeare and Company, plays the ghost, Sir Simon. He also doubles as Mrs. Umney, the manor housekeeper, and Lord Canterville, the surviving relative who introduces the Otis family to their new home. Mr. Hammond exhibited his customary ingenuity in roles calling for disguises or character-change, and his opening remarks to the audience were for this reviewer one of the delights of the production.

In Wilde’s story, the Americans included a “minister” with some influence in the Democratic Party, whereas in Ms. Brook’s production, the Americans sport Stetson hats, talk in southern drawls, pitch commercial products like lubricants and stain removers, not to mention break out suddenly into line-dance numbers to the tune of Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart.” The antics are destined to tax to the hilt the residual patience of any medieval ghost.

Michael F. Toomey plays Hiram Otis II with a brash and effusive élan laced with a perfect southern accent. He and his high-energy, intellectually challenged family drive the 300 year-old apparition to distraction. As for their American reverence for British pedigrees, the hayseed foursome, on perusing the gallery of portraiture decorating the walls of the ghost’s manor, remark, “There’s not a lot of variety in the gene pool.” Enough to cut even a fearsome spirit to the very quick.

Sir Simon’s numerous guises horrified his ancestors. In Wilde’s story, the Honorable Thomas Horton was reduced to idiocy after the ghost turned himself into a black dog; whereas old Lady Startup in 1764 was given to piercing shrieks culminating in a stroke when confronted by The Vampire Monk, or the Bloodless Benedictine. And Colonel Carbury, who had the audacity to play dice with the ghost, was discovered the day after in a paralytic state, unable for the remainder of his days to say anything but “Double Sixes.”

Sir Simon’s hauntings are hopelessly ineffectual on the Otis family. In both the story and the current production, they offer the ghost commercially marketed oil, Rising Sun Lubricator, to soften the sound of his clanging chains, Dr. Dobell’s Tincture for his pale complexion, and Paragon Detergent for a bloody stain that keeps reappearing on the very spot on which the ghost’s wife was murdered in 1575. As Wilde and Ms. Brook observe, the Otis family “were evidently people on a low, material plane of existence,” albeit not without a flair for the commercial pitch. All the same, they drive Sir Simon to the heights of exasperation, until their youngest and most sympathetic member, Virginia, redeems the ghost.

Dana Harrison as Libby-Boo and Lucretia Otis provided a stalwart back-up role for her husband. Alexandra Lincoln as Chastity and Washington radiated exuberance, and like Alyssa Hughlett as Virginia, showed how capable she is when it came to the challenges of stage movement.

Unfortunately, Ms. Brook’s and Ms. Brownsted’s script has several problems. Character changes across time frames were confusing (why and when does the girl Chastity transform into the boy Washington Otis, and do the hand puppets the latter wield represent the family twins? When are characters their present day or past incarnations, and how is the audience supposed to tell the difference?)

Ms. Brook’s improvisational style of directing may be a creative challenge for her performers, although it may have a down side for production values. Humorous moments, while plentiful, seemed to alternate with others in which the action dragged, or seem to function as a time-filler between more developed sketches. And some devices, foreign to Wilde’s story, seemed out of keeping with its stage adaptation, like Virginia’s sudden burst of ballet dancing. Tour jetés around the medieval helmet the Otis family calls “the rust bucket” seem oddly out of whack with ongoing action. Lines such as, “Oh, the horror, the horror!” are too close to those in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to avoid uncomfortable comparisons.

Yet the comedy on balance was an enjoyable one, and enhanced by Katy Monthei’s set design, Shelby Rodger’s costumes, and the ample lighting and sound design of Tina Louise Jones and Michael Pfeiffer.

The Canterville Ghost opened on September 19 and runs through November 9, 2008 at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre of Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA 01240. Show times are 11:00 AM, 2:00 PM, and 7:30 PM. Tickets are $48 and may be purchased online at or by calling the Box Office at (413)-637-3353.

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