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San Clemente Troupe Revisits Its First Production : Recasting the Spell

September 12, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN CLEMENTE — Newspaper clips reporting on San Clemente Community Theatre's first production in 1966 hang on the auditorium wall of the theater's Cabrillo Playhouse--not, as you might expect, in the lobby. When you're a community theater and you're 30 years old, you place your press clippings wherever you please.

Three decades later, the Cabrillo is revisiting that first production--John Van Druten's comedy "Bell, Book and Candle"--and it's a reasonably happy birthday party.

Although the 1958 movie version (starring James Stewart and Kim Novak) added some funkiness and style to the rather constrained play about Gillian the New York witch who loses her powers when she falls in love, Van Druten's Gillian is a still-potent role blending sexiness, gut instincts and good old rage. The role was significantly toned down for Novak's severe acting limitations, but here, Cynthia Walker shows hell hath no fury like a witch scorned.

Van Druten's basic idea is to set up Gillian as an affluent, sexy single lady in the posh Murray Hill district; she is confident but increasingly unhappy with her inevitable isolation from everyday human life. Her little coven includes brother Nicky (an effective Brandon Karrer, looking as if he hangs out with club crawlers in downtown SoHo) and her chummy aunt, Miss Holroyd (Sharyn Case). Gillian may want to renounce her witching powers when she's attracted to neighbor Shep (Ron Lance), but when she's put to the test, she'll try to out-witch anyone.

The concept isn't far afield from the tales of the all-too-human Greek gods, blessed with metaphysical powers but apt to lapse into petty squabbling or fall in love. Van Druten's three-act is pitched at the harmless level of so much bland commercial American theater of the 1950s, when it was written; it is itching to be subversive but held in check by the cultural moralism of the day.

A contemporary updating of "Bell" might suggest a little looser attitude, and under Terri Miller-Schmidt's direction, Walker and Karrer do their part with their hip New Yorker profiles. Both in appearance and attitude, Walker recalls Sally Kellerman, the poster gal for sexual and women's lib in the '70s, and she lets us in on Gillian's internal war between her witch and human sides without resorting to bathos on one end or slapstick on the other.

She's also a terrific seductress--if only she had someone worth seducing. Where this "Bell" feels more uptight than strap-on suspenders is in the form of Lance as Shep, who mistakes the character's normality for blandness. He plays Shep like the man at a party whom nobody notices, and when he does open his mouth, he's painful to listen to. Lance sounds and looks uncomfortable, diluting any chemistry between him and Gillian.

It's near-fatal casting, but Case as a charming, likable Holroyd and Vince Campbell as a perpetually drunken author who specializes in bestsellers about magic (Ernie Kovacs played him in the movie) inject the evening with comic verve just when it needs it.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Cynthia Walker: Gillian

Ron Lance: Shep

Sharyn Case: Miss Holroyd

Brandon Karrer: Nicky

Vince Campbell: Sidney

Ashley Case: Pyewacket

A San Clemente Community Theatre production of John Van Druten's comedy. Directed by Terri Miller-Schmidt. Set: Ron Lance and Mary Kay Lance. Lights: Ed Howie. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

* What: "Bell, Book and Candle" performed by the San Clemente Community Theatre.

* When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and Sept. 25, 2 p.m. Sunday and Sept. 22. Through Sept. 28.

* Where: Cabrillo Playhouse, 202 Avenida Cabrillo, San Clemente.

* Whereabouts: Exit Interstate 5 at Avenida Palizada; go west. Turn left (south) onto Ola Vista. The theater is at Ola Vista and Avenida Cabrillo.

* Wherewithal: $12.

* Where to call: (714) 492-0465.

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