Monday, September 30, 2013

The Book of Spectres at Chicago Dramatists

Two of my favorite things are Romanticism and ghost stories, so when I heard about Grey Ghost Theatre's production of The Book of Spectres, I could not miss it. A modest turnout in the Chicago Dramatists' intimate theatre, I settled in for what would turn out to be a pleasant Saturday evening's entertainment.

The story begins with some rather notorious figures: Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and the lesser known Claire Clairmont and John William Polidori. The group is forced to stay inside due to infamously bad weather and, no doubt inspired in part by the Romantic inclination towards the mysterious, start reading ghost stories. This coincides with a sudden and mysterious stranger that appears at their door with little recollection of who she is or how she got there. She appears quite mad and the audience can't help but suspect she may herself be an apparition.

The beautifully costumed performers do an impeccable job of not only playing the main characters, but also acting out the various ghost stories. As some of the ghost stories have stories within the stories, this is no small feat. The mark of a thespian's skill is in her ability to believably play radically different roles and the entire cast does this skillfully. Hilary Holbrook brings a vibrant energy to the stage as Claire Clairmont while Maggie McCally is able to seamlessly slip into a wide variety of roles. The talented cast works hard at overcoming the consistently neutral set design. Still, at points, a few more props might help focus the audience as they act out the more multi-layered ghost stories.

The overall ambience is haunting and surreal, often making good use of lighting and sound effects. This is most pronounced whenever an apparition appears. Given the brightness of the default lighting, the transitions are nothing short of dramatic. It almost makes up for the lack of props in the second ghost story. The ghost stories were intriguing and the actors were at their best when performing the more dark and dramatic of these pieces.

Somewhat out of place was the story of the peacock king. Between the slapstick acting and the fairy tale quality of the narrative, I couldn't help but wonder why they chose to include it. The play could have been strengthened by cutting the peacock king story out and developing more of the historical elements of the featured Romantic writers. The intellectualism of these figures was nearly absent, as was their decadence. I think if the literary backdrop were more developed and the peacock story cut, it would be a truly phenomenal work.

That said, I would recommend it to anyone that enjoys ghost stories or is simply in the mood for a Halloween-themed play. It's a good production that they obviously put a lot of effort into, and their passion for the project was obvious. I enjoyed the show and would gladly see any future productions by Grey Ghost Theatre.

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