Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, this past Halloween was mostly a bust. There’s been so much unexpected death over the past year; maybe it didn’t seem right to ritualize or fetishize the macabre. And we couldn’t have gathered at parties or parades or haunted houses even if we’d wanted to. Fortunately, a good ghost story is never out of style, as Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Canterville Ghost” has proved for well over a century. Its latest iteration comes as an audio play from Hands Across the Pond Theatre, a new collaboration between the LA-based Open-Door Playhouse and the UK-based Our Kid and Me Productions.
The ascendance of podcasts has resuscitated the mostly-dead art once called the radio drama. This is one of the best new examples I’ve heard, and especially appropriate as it’s a ghost story – though one with a twist. Some actors trained for the stage and screen seem to have trouble adapting to an audio medium – enunciating unnaturally or otherwise compensating unnecessarily for the absence of facial expression and body language. This cast avoids that pitfall, offering tempered portrayals of Wilde’s main characters: the American family who buys and moves into a haunted English manor house, and the ghost (John Hunter) who tries to terrorize them only to run into brash American skepticism – but also, in teenage Virginia (McKenna Koledo), at last a kind friend who can help his restless soul finally find peace.
The adaptation by John and David Hunter abbreviates certain aspects but keeps the story’s essentials. When the composer Gordon Getty made the same tale the subject of a recent one-act opera , he made a change in misguided deference to modern sensibilities, altering the nature of the crime that forced old Sir Simon de Canterville’s soul to wander the mansion’s halls for centuries clanking his chains, scaring local bluebloods and servants alike out of the their wits, and never finding peace. This audio telling from Hands Across the Pond holds to the original, wherein Sir Simon murdered his wife because she was “plain” and a bad cook and housekeeper. Ickily misogynistic? Of course, and worse. But a part of Wilde’s satire.
Slickly paced by director Bernadette Armstrong, its gothic humor and satirical wit more or less intact and its characters appropriately appealing and appalling, this ghostly classic is an excellent early installment in a planned series of audio one-acts and shorts. The Canterville Ghost will premiere March 24 at the Open-Door Playhouse website.