Bag&Baggage's magic touch
Peter Schuyler and Jessi Walters, resident actors at Bag&Baggage in downtown Hillsboro, gravitate around each other in the center of The Vault Theater as they practice their lines.
Their characters are in love — or so it seems.
Hillsboro's staple performing arts company is putting the finishing touches on its newest production, "Bell, Book and Candle," which opens at the Vault Theater on Nov. 29.
Walters plays a witch living in Greenwich Village in 1950s New York City who falls in love with her mortal neighbor. To win him over, she casts a love spell on him. What happens next, director Scott Palmer said, is much to the audience's anticipation and just in time for a little Christmas magic.
The play, written by John Van Druten, became a 1958 movie starring James Stewart and Kim Novak. Later, it inspired the 1960s beloved television series "Bewitched."
"Bell, Book and Candle" takes place during the holiday season, but it isn't seen as a conventional show for this time of year. Palmer and the rest of the cast say it should be.
"Today, it speaks to forgiveness, grace, honesty, family. All that hits home for a holiday show," Palmer said. "More importantly, this is a time to talk about those issues about providing people with redemption. It feels like a great time to do that, and it is a well-written comedy to bring that message."
The whole cast carries a tone of voice reminiscent to actors on the silver screen in the 1940s and 1950s.
"There is a style we want to create and to do it together and consistently is a challenge, along with learning our characters and relationships, we are trying to integrate this specific style," said Norman Wilson, who plays the witch's brother, Nick.
At rehearsal, it is unmistakable. Walters moves around The Vault Theater with cat-like movements, sure to encourage fans of movies with starlets iconic to the time.
"This play was inspired by a period of time where Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant had a specific style of speech and movement," Palmer said. "We spent a ton of time with me asking, 'Do you look like you are about to have your photo taken?' It is about making angles and shapes," Palmer said.
A deeper message
The play, while a comedy to the core, explores tougher issues prevalent to the #MeToo era, like consent in relationships and outside relationships.
"There is this idea of putting someone under a spell and having a spell put on you, along with discovering you have a spell put on you," Kymberli Colbourne, who plays Walters' mother, said. "For me, theater is at its best when we put this story at a safe distance and you fall into it with us, come into the world with us, but then it strikes something in you about where you are today. We always hope we start a conversation. We want you to respond."
The playwright, John Van Druten, is known for his works including "I Am a Camera" and "The Voice of the Turtle." Druten lived as a closeted gay man, and that experience is heavily present in "Bell, Book, and Candle," Schuyler said.
"There is a real undertone of pain and serious stuff happening under the shiny veneer. There will be something to chew on and think about as you leave, unlike other Christmas shows," Schuyler said.
"John Van Druten uses the metaphor of witches living among us, but hidden — they have their own bars, their have their own clubs, they don't mingle with the normal mortals," Palmer said. "They can't tell anyone who they are really are, they have a close group of family and friends who know their lives. That is a clear metaphor for what a lot of gay men and lesbians in the 1950s, and a lot of queer people today, still struggle with, especially at the holidays. This is a very charming, witty romantic comedy speaking to how we can and can't be who we really are for fear of losing everything. A number of characters in the play struggle with that question. 'Can I be who I really am?' Ultimately, all of us when we got the script, we thought it would be a cake walk. But three days in, we thought, 'Wait a minute.'"
Walters said watching shows like "The Magicians," "Sabrina" and "American Horror Story: Coven" helped her with the role of Gillian.
"It carries out a long tradition of witches in television and modern-day society like 'Sabrina the Teenage Witch,'" Walters said. "It is the season of the witch currently. I am finding that the powerful feminist, who is having sex with who she wants, living where she wants, doing what she wants, that is very in vogue right now. We are putting contemporary meat on an old story and we take something traditional, then turn it on its head."
Many of the Christmas stories out there are about men like Scrooge in "The Christmas Carol," or the Grinch or Santa, Palmer said, noting how it is refreshing to have a female-led holiday show.
"For us, our dedication to centralizing woman's voices and their experiences in this room and on our stage," Palmer said. "I loved this play since I read it in college because it is this remarkable character written at a time that female characters were not remarkable."
"Bell, Book and Candle" opens Thursday, Nov. 29, at 7:30 p.m., with performances every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday until Dec. 23. Sunday performances are at 2 p.m. Opening night is a "pay-what-you-will night," with no set admission price.
The show is encouraged for ages 13 and up, and is about two hours with an intermission. Late seating is not permitted due to limited seating.
For tickets, visit bagnbaggage.org.
By Janae Easlon
Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune971-762-1166
Follow Janae at @Janae_Easlon
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