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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Cat and the Canary

"Only the ignorant suffer through fear. Take a bird— a canary in its cage — then let a cat jump up and walk around the cage, glaring at the canary. What happens? The canary, seeing its enemy so close to it, is frightened almost to death. But if it had understanding, it would know that the cat couldn't reach it while it had the protection of the cage. Not knowing this, it suffers a thousand deaths— through fear."
— Isabel West, reading from a book she picked up in the library of the mansion she's just inherited.
The Cat and the Canary
The cast gathered for the reading of the late Cyrus West's will. (Photo by Abby LePage)
The book Annabel West picks up in her uncle's library pre-dates FDR's famous inaugural speech quote about our having nothing to fear except fear itself. It supports Annabelle's in feeling more thrilled than chilled about inheriting her long dead uncle's estate. But for all her determination enjoy her sudden good fortune and not to be put off by ominous foreshadowing and spooky occurrences, she'll be scared into a dead faint before the stormy night at Glencliff Manor is over.

To give John Willard's roaring 20s melodrama a fresh new look and feel, Berkshire Theater Group has enlisted the talents of graduates and undergraduates of the Yale Drama School. Their efforts have transformed the Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theater into an spooky mansion. Theater goers , like Cyrus West's wannabe heirs summoned to Glencliff for the reading of the will 20 years after his death, are greeted by ghost-like BTG interns and ushered to seats bathed in an eerie green light and, like the playing area, overhung by chandeliers.

Director Ethan Heard and his design team and actors have maintained the Roaring 20s look and the blend of comedy and creepiness of the most famous film version starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard (there've been 4). And while the laughs outdo the edge-of-the-seat aspects of Willard's mystery, who cares. The whole idea really is to capture the spirit of a genre that has entertained theater and movie audiences for more than fifty years.

Given the many murder in a mansion dramas that have followed this granddaddy of them all, the plot will have a vaguely familiar ring. A group of potential heirs are summoned to the dark and dusty but still grand mansion of the eccentric West on the 20th anniversary of his death. His lawyer Roger Crosby (Christopher Geary) has removed three letters detailing the legacy from a safe behind West's portrait (the first of Reid Thompson's several clever surprisingly movable backdrops). Since the inheritor of the fortune must bear the West name that makes the lovely Annabelle (an aptly lovely Ashton Heyl) the lucky heiress.

Since one of the envelopes also stipulates that everyone at the will reading spend the night at Glencliff, everything's set up for Annabelle to have to deal with the two other women's jealousy and the three men who are her would-be suitors. The discovery that a lunatic has escaped from the nearby asylum, sets the scene for enough things to happen (yes, including a murder!) to shake Annabelle's confidence that there's nothing to fear except fear.

Sophie von Haselberg (Susan Sillsby) schemes to disinherit Annabelle (her being of sound mind, is another stipulation of the will). Cicily Young (Willa Fitzgerald) is too timid to stop her. The motives of the three men —Harry Blythe (Matthew McCollum), Charlie Wilder (J. Andrew Young) and Paul Jones (Tom Pecinka)— who happen to be courting Annabelle are now tinged with suspicions of fortune hunting.

Oh and let's not forget Mrs. Underwood (Ariana Venturi) who's been watching over the mansion, and its ghosts, for twenty years. Vemturi, even with a gray streak in her hair is a rather young version of similar creepy mansion managers like Judith Anderson and Gail Sondergard. But she nevertheless brings the right touch of weirdness to the spirit-seeing lady. The entire cast is, in fact, excellent. With Tom Pacinka especially endearing as the shy and fearful but very funny hero who predictably wins the hand of the heiress. of the play. Nice as it is to see some of this excellent emerging acting talent, it's the set, lighting and sound effects that are the big stars of this The Cat and the Canary.

If you saw the company's Same Time Next Year currently at the Main Stage, you may have thought, as I did, that the the acting interns were too much encouraged to turn the between scene changes into campy performances. This proclivity for pushing every comic button too hard is even more in evidence here. The ghostly greeters are fun. Having the ushers doubling as an introductory chorus as well as prop movers actually works better here, but some of the scene changing shtick becomes a bit much. Atmospheric as this production is, it needs to stand on its own merits rather than as an attempt to replicate the remarkable success of Sleep No More .

The Cat and the Canary by John Willard
Directed by Ethan Heard
Cast: (Willa Fitzgerald (Cicily Young), Ashton Heyl(Annabelle West), Christopher Geary(Roger Crosby), Matthew McCollum(Harry Blythe),Will Turner(Hendricks), Tom Pecinka (Paul Jones), Ariana Venturi(Mrs. Underwood), Sophie von Haselberg (Susan Sillsby),J. Andrew Young(Charlie Wilder)
Scenic Designer: Reid Thompson
Costumes: David Murin
Lighting: Shawn E. Boyle
Composer/Sound Designer: Steven Brush
Fight Directer: Christopher Campbell- Orrock
Stage Manager: Kristin Pfeifer
Berkshire Theatre Group at The Unicorn Theatre
From 8/01/13; opening 8/03/13; closing8/24/13
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including 2 intermissions
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer August 7th
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