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Bell, Book, and Candle

Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. until July 15

Theatre Central, 141 S. Gay Street

$5 on Thursday or for students with I.D. $10 Fridays and Saturdays.

Witchy Woman

An old play gets new life on Gay Street

by Adrienne Martini

Stop me if I've told you this before.

Once upon a time a theater professor told me that "one generation's tragedy is the next's melodrama." This elbow-patched font of knowledge was the same one who used to wax rhapsodic about waltzing bears and the fact that we should be proud they can dance at all. At the time, I didn't think I was listening.

This particular analogy about tragedy and melodrama, which popped up during Theatre Central's production of Bell, Book, and Candle, seems to hold true for comedy as well—but it is harder to drop in the appropriate words. One generation's comedy is the next's... what? farce? slapstick? Nothing quite fits but the sentiment is more or less equivalent. Let's just stick with melodrama and be done with it.

So one generation's comedy is the next's melodrama. And Bell, Book, and Candle, produced as a movie in 1958, proves it.

Let me make one (if only one) idea clear; there is nothing wrong with melodrama. It's just a shorthand description for a form in which emotions run high, thoughts turn on a whim's notice, and all of the characters appear two-dimensional. Bell certainly fits this mold, telling a simple (not simplistic, just uncomplicated) story of a disenchanted witch who falls in love with her non-witchy neighbor. Gillian the witch casts a spell on her neighbor Shepherd and he falls for her. Then her nutty family gets involved, each with his or her straightforward goal, and the relationship crumbles, despite magic. Soon, though, all resolves itself and we live happily ever after.

Melodrama goes bad when the simple story, with all of the resultant hijinks, never progresses beyond the hijinks themselves. Imagine the old trope of the landlord/female tenant/hero that goes on about "I can't pay the rent." "You must pay the rent!" Feel free to use this page to fold your own mustache/hair bow/bow tie.

Bell, fortunately, uses the melodrama to thinly veil its hidden agenda, which is how hard it is to be different from those around you. Gillian, because of her witchy-ness, is isolated from the normal folk around her. Because she is dis-enchanted about her powers, she is equally isolated from her witch friends, who insist that real witches can't fall in love and only get close to others to screw (literally and figuratively) them. She fits neither mold—and neither side wants her when she falls in love with someone who is not like she appears to be.

Forty-plus years out from when Bell first rang, this modern production makes playwright John van Druten's allegory painfully clear. Being a witch can easily be read as being gay, of a majority culture being terrified by a minority. It can also speak of being crammed into a stereotype that doesn't fit and can make a person really, really mad.

Actor Mary Sue Greiner-Bell does an okay job of capturing this anger and isolation, as does her love interest played by Glen Glover. The two make you want to see more from them—more passion, more expressiveness, more something. Theatre Central stalwarts Kenny King and Bill Householder turn in expressive performances as two utility players who move the plot along and provide comic relief. And, once again, Ed White steals the show, nailing his characterization of Gillian's dotty, middle-aged aunt.

It is the play itself, more than the performances, that captures the imagination. Perhaps this is what the playwright intended all of those years ago.

June 29, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 26
© 2000 Metro Pulse