December and drama have a long history together, and it’s not all “happy holidays!” This is the time of year when theaters compete with office Christmas parties and carol sings for the audience’s leisure hours. Those who do come out to see a show often do so in a mixed group and can arrive with widely varying expectations. That’s why, while safe choices and seasonal chestnuts typically rule, the holidays can also provide an opportunity for enterprising theater to make a big impact by hatching something that combines familiarity with genuine excitement. Ensemble Theatre Company managed that magic trick last year with its critically acclaimed and sold-out run of A Lion in Winter, starring Stephanie Zimbalist. For this year, Ensemble’s artistic director Jonathan Fox is back with another, more offbeat revival that could become the hit of this holiday season.
Bell, Book & Candle is a 1950s comedy about a lovelorn and barefoot young nonconformist, Gillian Holroyd (Mattie Hawkinson), who also happens to be a witch. The play made its Broadway debut in 1950 with Rex Harrison as Gillian’s civilian crush, Shep Henderson, and took almost a decade before crossing over to Hollywood, where it became a vehicle for Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in 1958.
The show’s principal plot device is simple. Gillian can only realize her love for Shep, a handsome publishing executive who lives upstairs in her Greenwich Village apartment building, at the expense of her identity because a witch who falls in love loses her powers. When Gillian learns that Shep is engaged to one of her college friends, her initial response is to cast a spell on him, but as time goes on, she realizes that her powers are incompatible with her real feelings.
In recent revivals of Bell, Book & Candle (and there have been several), directors have keyed into a dream match in the show between style and subtext. Gillian and her friends hang around in a West Village nightclub called the Zodiac, which comes across as a kind of Stonewall for witches. By playing up the Mad Men–era fashions of the 1958 film and pairing that look with the barely coded references that playwright John Van Druten made to his life as a gay man living in New York circa 1950, these recent revivals have helped rewrite the show’s appeal. Director Brian Shnipper, whose last play at Ensemble was the exciting string-quartet show Opus, produced and created Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays in 2008 and has the experience and tact to keep this formula fresh. I spoke with Shnipper last week about the upcoming production.
How did you come to choose Bell, Book & Candle? I always ask the same question of every play, which is, am I dying to direct this? And the first time that Jonathan [Fox] suggested Bell, I was intrigued. But I had never seen it or read it, so I didn’t really have anything to go on. The second time Jon mentioned it, I decided I had to find out more, and that’s when I got hooked. There are two versions of Bell, Book & Candle — the original 1950 play by John Van Druten and the film from 1958 with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak — and the play’s great, but the movie just comes from a much sexier time visually. That’s why this version is set in 1959, so that we can give it a bold look.
Do the witches perform any magic? There are only a few magic tricks, and they are small things. Simple but fun was our idea with the magic because that’s not really the focus of the show.
The costumes are very important in this show. Can you describe the look? The men have on Buddy Holly–type glasses and suits, and the women’s outfits are all highly contoured. Gillian’s wardrobe has to be special, and one of the ways we found to make her look different is through fur trim. The idea is to recall the concept of the “familiars” — animals such as the black cat that would be friends with Gillian — but not to be too obvious about it.
Without revealing too much, what are the surprises? Gillian’s brother Nicky brings the most subversive comedy to the story. He supposedly has a girlfriend, but no one around him buys that for a second. John Van Druten was closeted as a writer, but so many of the details in Bell, Book & Candle can now be seen as references to his life as a gay man in New York in the early 1950s that it’s hard not to read it that way today.
Ensemble Theatre presents Bell, Book & Candle at the Alhecama Theatre (914 Santa Barbara St.), Thursday, November 29-Sunday, December 16. Call (805) 965-5400 or visit ensembletheatre.com for tickets and info.