“Bell, Book, & Candle”: bewitched, bothered, bewildered

Brett Campbell, Oregon ArtsWatch

"the magic theme... that sends even the Scroogiest among us out into the midwinter chill with a glow in our hearts."

-Brett Campbell, Oregon ArtsWatch

Bag & Baggage brews up a cauldron of comic fun and theatrical magic but underplays the dark currents of a story about social outsiders.

When I was a kid watching sitcom reruns, I had a major crush on Samantha Stevens, the good witch played by Elizabeth Montgomery in the long running ‘60s TV series Bewitched. I was even more, er, enchanted by her crazy supernatural family, including Paul Lynde’s goofy Uncle Arthur and Sam’s sly mom, Endora, perfectly overplayed with delicious wink and bite (and glorious caftans) by the great Agnes Moorhead.

Bewitched’s story grew directly from its primary inspiration: British-American playwright John Van Druten’s popular 1950 play Bell, Book and Candle, turned into a smash 1958 film starring sometime Oregonian Kim Novak, James Stewart, and Jack Lemmon.  Van Druten’s original, in a spiffy Bag & Baggage production, adds a welcome dose of theatrical magic to this holiday season; it even has a first act set at Christmas, in a stylishly rendered mid-century New York.

The uses of enchantment: Norman Wilson (from left), Jessi Walters and Kymberli Colbourne in the Bag & Baggage production of “Bell, Book & Candle.” Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Yet I suspect director Scott Palmer shared my infatuation with Samantha’s crazy magical family members because this production portrays them more like the TV show’s zany characters than the nastier counterparts in Van Druten’s play script. Bell Book & Candle isn’t Bewitched, and this production’s direction — however, er, bewitching — sometimes clashes with the darker story Van Druten tells.

Spellbound

When SWF (Single Witch Female) Gillian learns that Shep, a publisher she’s crushing on who moved in to her building recently, is about to marry her childhood school nemesis, Gillian sees her chance for revenge. In the twinkle of a nose (actually a cat-assisted spell), Shep is ensorcelled into unbounded ardor for Gillian.

Complications arrive in the characters of an author who’s investigating witchery for a book, and one of his primary sources, who happens to be Gillian’s decadent brother, Nicky. Fearing Shep, who might publish it, will learn of her witchy powers — and that their love is based on magical rather than mutual attraction — Gillian squares off with Nicky, with his book and her relationship with Shep in the balance. The familiar (to any Bewitched fan) battle between her desire for human love, and her family and heritage, is on.

But BB&C is no frothy sitcom story. Beneath the urban fantasy facade lies a surprisingly deep and occasionally dark drama about family conflict, self-determination, and regret. Can love won under false pretenses ever be real? Gaining traction in the second act, the play proceeds entertainingly and ultimately movingly to provide some hard-earned, and heart-tugging answers in the touching third act. Though it avoids Hallmark sentimentality, BB&C is a holiday gift that resonates today more deeply than much holiday fare.

That’s not just because of the shaded love story. Writing at the nadir of McCarthyism, Van Druten presents the witches as feared pariahs who must hide in plain sight, never revealing their true nature to the normals. “Have you been engaging in un-American activities?” a clueless Shep teases Gillian when she considers revealing her true nature to him. “No — very American,” she replies. “Early American.”

Without getting preachy or pedantic about it, this production aligns human fear of witches with the repression and homophobia that permeated American culture as much as the midcentury mod furnishings that decorate the set and even the Vault lobby, enough to make a DWR devotee drool. As Bag & Baggage’s always valuable study guide notes, the play shows:

“the fear of being discovered that underlies all of witch culture, and the terror that comes from the possibility of your loved ones finding out who you really are and the secrets you are keeping. This feeling of being kept from the world around you is not an accident in John Van Druten’s writing; rather, this feeling of exclusion and hurt mirrors the feeling of being a closeted gay man in the ‘50s. Gillian’s confusion and frustration following the events of the play mirror emotions that Van Druten certainly must have experienced in his life as a gay man in a culture that was unwilling to accept his sexuality.”

As many gay people and Communists were forced to do in actual 20th century America, the witches’ fear of discovery leads them straight to the (broom?) closet. In BB&Cs world, a witch who falls in love with a human must renounce her supernatural powers. “She must lose everything that is her identity,” the guide explains, if she wants to fully join the human world by marrying Shep. Palmer likens Gillian’s dilemma to what many minority members, from Communists (during the Red Scare) to immigrants to light-skinned African Americans to gay people have had to do to pass as “normal” in a repressive society.

The witches=gay people theme is explicit in the production’s portrayal of Gillian’s brother/nemesis Nicky Holroyd, whom Norman Wilson plays in a cheeky manner reminiscent of Paul Lynde’s snarky ’60s Bewitched character Uncle Arthur. “He was my idol,” Wilson writes on the B&B blog. “Somebody could have magical powers AND be hilariously funny? Sign me up! I realize now why I related so well to these witches. They were different, and naughty, and not accepted by mortals who couldn’t understand or accept their differences. Hmm… This felt very close to home. It took a long time for me to accept myself as a gay man and to not feel the need to hide it.” Nicky’s arch inflections when talking about how witches and warlocks can recognize each other as fellow enchanters drew chuckles for their implicit comparison to gaydar.

All mod cons: In “Bell, Book & Candle,” witches may be society’s outsiders, but at least they’ve got style. Jessi Walters and Norman Wilson amid the mid-century splendor of Tyler Buswell’s scenic design. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

No wonder B&B’s production sometimes recalls Todd Haynes’s 2002 film Far from Heaven, in which a married couple (played by Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid) grapple with early Mad Men-era repressed sexuality and their own “forbidden” desires. Palmer’s colorful approach (in both design and acting style) succeeds in contrasting the happy facades of mid-century American culture with the darker desires they conceal, much as Haynes did in modeling his movie on the Douglas Sirk films of that earlier era.

Mixed Signals

But it’s one thing to acknowledge and even underline that the script likely draws on Van Druten’s experiences as a closeted gay man in a repressive time, and maybe a sympathizer with repressed political leftists. It’s quite another to portray, as this production does, the admittedly oppressed witches as ipso facto good, or at least harmless, guys. After all, if Gillian represents an outsider victim of a repressive society, shouldn’t her romance with the mainstream Shep be depicted as tragic, doomed, self-hating rather than admirable? Instead, the production keeps signaling us that it’s Bewitched (I half expected the TV series theme song to be the curtain call music), while the dialogue and action tells us we’re seeing Bell, Book & Candle, which is a much deeper, darker story whose message sometimes gets muddled here as a result.

Probably to most 21st century theatergoers, the outsider family Gillian’s fleeing resembles groups (leftists, gay people) oppressed by mainstream culture. (Think the misunderstood mutants in X-Men.) While her love object Shep works steadily in the normal boring business world, they get to be lazy bohos who wear fabulously tacky plaid suits and change hair color with each scene. In this century and this production, they seem more appealing to us than they do to Gillian herself.

In contrast, Van Druten’s script views the witches as more victimizers than victims. Gillian regrets the witchy mischief she once perpetrated and no longer want to be one of the oppressed outsiders. To her, Shep represents responsibility, earning your living and your love through character and substance rather than sorcery. Choosing Shep over family, and truth over witchcraft, is a metaphor for growing up and leaving behind mercurial, irresponsible immaturity — as well as a controlling family whose actions in the play are darker and crueler than I ever remember them shown in Bewitched.

By adopting the TV show’s portrayal of the witchy family as entertainingly antic and at worst mildly annoying, this production makes Gillian’s decision to leave them behind somewhat puzzling. It also produced false-start laughs in the audience, which found itself prodded — by acting and directing moves, not by any changes in the script itself — to laugh at distinctly unfunny scripted words and actions. Though BB&C has comic moments, it’s no comedy.

That same switch in sympathy (from humans to witches) happened to me and presumably plenty of other Bewitched viewers. Its similar to what reputedly also happened to All in the Family, in which the bigot Archie became the most popular character even though the liberal producers initially saw him as at best an ignorant meathead, at worst a villain). We wound up rooting for the “bad” guys, who, like Nicky in this production, are so much more fun than the normies. This disconnect between the production’s and the script’s sensibilities makes the play’s ultimate resolution emotionally confounding.

But it doesn’t seriously undermine audience enjoyment of this underrated play, nor of B&B’s peppy production. As persuasively and vulnerably played by Jessi Walters, Gillian is a much more flawed, complicated and finally human character than TV formulas could ever let Samantha be. Similarly, Peter Schuyler’s Shep (channeling Cary Grant, mid-Atlantic accent and all) is much tougher, wounded and complicated than Derwood, er, Darren Stephens. Multi-wigged Kymberli Colbourne does the best she can (and that’s plenty appealing) with the murkily defined role of Gillian’s Aunt Queenie. Wilson’s Nick is as electric as his suits. Joey Copsey makes a believably and entertainingly egocentric and insecure witchcraft book author. Only one performance comes off as wooden, and that’s because Gillian’s feline familiar Pyewacket is represented by lovely figures carved (actually from polystyrene) by artist Greg Bruce.

Melissa Heller’s fetching period costumes and Tyler Buswell’s early-mod scenic design really bring us into the world of mid-century New York. Palmer’s determination to keep audience eyes moving all around the in-the-round set keeps our heads swiveling, through theatrical, not supernatural means. Occasional judicious doses of theatrical production witchcraft reinforce the magic theme, including a beautifully staged finale that sends even the Scroogiest among us out into the midwinter chill with a glow in our hearts.

Bell, Book & Candle’s themes of magic, self-sacrifice and redemption make it as appropriate for this holiday season as its opening scene Christmas setting, accentuated by Lawrence Siulagi’s lovely snowy projections in the Vault. The acting, design, direction, and Van Druten’s moving story together make for an entertaining collection of holiday gifts — even if they don’t always quite match.