Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October, 2006
This double bill, featuring a reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum and a stage adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Kerfol, is a modest little Halloween thrill. Shakespeare & Company has gone all out and decorated the lobby of the Founders’ Theatre with cobwebs and some gory props left over from productions of some of Shakespeare’s bloodier tragedies. I attended on a cold, clear, and blustery October evening, the kind calculated to put you in the mood for a friendly fright. But despite all these efforts by the Company and Mother Nature, I couldn’t help but feel that this evening was a bland witch’s brew concocted to do nothing more than make a few dollars.
With a top ticket price of $54 for barely 90 minutes (including intermission) spent in the theatre is steep. Especially since only half of the evening’s entertainment truly is theatre.
The Poe reading, which is done by a rotating crew of “big name” actors from Shakespeare & Company’s ranks, is just that, a reading. I saw Michael Hammond, an actor whose work I enjoy, and he was good enough – for a guy sitting in a chair in slacks and a sweater reading from a script. The sound design by Josh Liebert generally fit the descriptions Poe had written, although occasionally I would listen to what Hammond said and compare it to the sound effect and be completely mystified. The lights went on and off at the appropriate moments. An effectively tattered dingy white curtain formed the back-drop.
I had actually never read The Pit and the Pendulum so I was the perfect audience, ripe for any surprise or terror the story held, but none was forthcoming. I think the biggest surprise for me was the deus ex machina ending. I was primed for something gory and got something political. And that’s Poe’s fault, not Shakespeare & Company’s.
I am sure that each actor will bring something different to this reading. Kevin G. Coleman will be reading on October 22 & 29, Josh McCabe on October 26, Michael F. Toomey on October 27, and Jonathan Croy on October 28.
Kerfol is fully staged, with costumes by Govane Lohbauer, a handsome set by Carl Sprague, and evocative lights by Nathan Towne-Smith and sound by Liebert. But Dennis Krausnick’s adaptation is all tell and no show, and the cast is hard put to bring the story to life.
For those of you who are wondering, yes, Edith Wharton did write ghost stories, and Krausnick has adapted many of them for Shakespeare & Company over the years more effectively than he has here. Michael Hammond manages some suspenseful moments in his direction, but the majority of the thrill impact here is in the sets, lights, costumes, make-up and sound effects. In other words, this piece is scary because it looks and sounds scary, not because it actually is.
The plot centers on a novelist named Lydia (Rachel Siegel) who becomes trapped alone on a dark and stormy night in a decrepit medieval manor house in Brittany, named Kerfol (pronounced Ker-FOLE) that she is considering buying. It comes complete with ghosts and ancient tales of murder, of course, and in the course of the play that history is revealed. David Joseph and Julie Webster play the dual roles of Lydia’s 20th century friends Herve and Anne,who are with her on her house-hunting expedition, and their namesakes, the long-ago lovers accused of murder. Jeffrey Kent is the ghostly Inquistor (the common thread connecting the Wharton and Poe stories is the Spanish Inquisition) and George Bergen is the long-ago chaplain of Kerfol.
The hard burden of overwhelming narrative falls on the shoulders of Webster, Kent, and Bergen. Occasionally Siegel or Joseph’s characters will attempt to interrupt their endless monologues and are silenced or struck down, which allows for a little action and movement on the stage, but mostly the Inquisitor keeps everything under control, which means that there is a lot of “testimony” and not a lot of action.
However Kerfol does have an appropriately spooky ending, and there is some genuine unpleasantness described along the way, enough to qualify this play as a true blood-and-guts thriller.
But the whole evening lacked the sense of spontaneity and adventure that was so central to what Shakespeare & Company used to do for Halloween when they were at The Mount. I have fond memories of that spooky walk through the woods from the Carriage Barn to The Mount with costumed and creepy actors lurking behind every bush. One year the path led us to approach The Mount from below, and I have a vivid memory of emerging from the forest to see the then crumbling house perched high above me with a full moon raked by scudding clouds hovering over its roof.
Shakespeare & Company has extensive grounds full of buildings in various states of decay that could serve as an equally thrilling back drop to a Halloween Hike, and they still have hordes of eager and willing young students who would gladly wrap themselves in “blood” soaked rags and leap about in the underbrush. Not everyone could or would take such a walk, and bad weather could play havoc with carefully laid plans, but I still think that an optional outdoor component of this evening would have made it feel complete and unique.
Readings from Poe & Edith Wharton’s “Kerfol” runs through October 29 in the Founders’ Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA. The show runs 90 minutes with one intermission and is suitable for everyone in your family who enjoys a good fright. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006