Relax a spell
There’s something so comforting and lovely about a classic 1950s film—like a warm sweater, predictably soft and easy, lovely to look at and not too challenging. I’ve just described Bell, Book & Candle, Brüka Theatre’s newest production, which kicks off the company’s 26th season—the Classic Revolution season, featuring works that offer a classic theatrical feeling.
As you take a seat on one of the low couches in its main stage seating area, the effectively chosen set design and music create the illusion of a cozy night on your own couch in front of Turner Classic Movies for a black-and-white romantic comedy straight outta 1958.
No matter that John Van Druten’s stage version preceded the film starring James Stewart, Kim Novak and Jack Lemmon. It’s the film folks know best, a classic that’s dusted off every fall.
True to its word, Brüka has captured the spirit of the film and its time period, complete with black-and-white film montages and interstitial video projections during scene changes, as well as music reminiscent of an episode of Bewitched (a descendant of this film and others like it).
As the story begins, Gillian Holroyd (Marki Ho) and her cat, Pyewacket (an adorable, real cat courtesy of the Nevada Humane Society), are keeping an eye out for their neighbor, Shepherd “Shep” Henderson (Jason Wesley Shutt), a bookish publisher. Gillian, Shep’s landlord, is attracted to him, but he seems to barely notice her, until today, when he finds a fellow resident, Gillian’s eccentric Aunt Queenie (Michelle Calhoun), rooting around in his belongings. He arrives at Gillian’s door, demanding that she address the situation. Little does he know, Gillian is a bona fide witch, and so is Queenie. Through a hex, Queenie and Gillian’s flamboyant brother, Nicky (Ryan Costello), put on Shep’s phone, they discover that the object of Gillian’s affection just happens to be engaged to one Merle Kittredge, a former school rival of Gillian’s.
Witches can’t fall in love, and Gillian knows this. Still, it just doesn’t seem right that such an awful person as Merle could be engaged to the lovely Shep—so Gillian casts an itty-bitty love spell on Shep to ruin things for Merle. It all seems like harmless fun until Shep gets serious, Gillian unwittingly develops real feelings for Shep and her secret supernatural powers threaten to ruin everything.
Like many stories from the 1950s, the pacing in this one is slow—which is tough in a three-hour show—with a lot of the action having taken place off stage and only described later. It resulted in a constant feeling that there was something I missed. The interactions among characters rely heavily on nuance and subtlety, and in several places it was subtle enough to be nonexistent and missed altogether. For example, what’s supposed to be a marked change in Gillian’s character, through her relationship with Shep, really isn’t. Though James Stewart managed to make Shep’s obtuseness charming, this Shep is just obtuse. When paired with Ho’s big personality, the chemistry doesn’t quite work. On the other hand, Costello’s Nicky is magnetic; I could watch him for days.
Ultimately, Bell, Book & Candle isn’t provocative or deep. It’s a soothing balm on a cold autumn night that casts a spell with its laughs and nostalgia.