San Francisco Theater Review: BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (SF Playhouse)

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by Stacy Trevenon on December 20, 2012

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


It’s not Halloween but Christmastime, and the San Francisco Playhouse is ringing in the season in a novel way with their production of Bell, Book and Candle in their sparkling new Post Street venue with its comfy chairs. With its decorative air of belonging to another, long-past time period, this roomy and near-luxurious venue is Stacy Trevenon’s Stage and Cinema review of Bell, Book and Candle at the San Francisco Playhousea perfect fit for this play.

John Van Druten’s play hit Broadway in 1950. The story about a reluctant New York City witch and the decidedly non-magic mortal with whom she falls in love (but to whom she cannot reveal that she’s a witch), then appeared on the silver screen with Kim Novak and James Stewart (1958). At SF Playhouse, it is more than done justice by Bill English’s relaxed direction and the palpable enthusiasm of his cast. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a comedy rife with sly one-liners, but much of the fun occurs when fine actors play societal misfits being who they are for all they’re worth.

Stacy Trevenon’s Stage and Cinema review of Bell, Book and Candle at the San Francisco PlayhouseLauren English turns in an at-time sensuous, at-times naughty, and always very evocative and appealing performance as said witch, Gillian Holroyd. William Connell, as feet-in-the-real-world, skeptical publisher Shepherd Henderson, strikes just the right note with a breezy Everyman air and a distinct flair for physical comedy. She’s longing for something new and, under the smoldering eyes of her feline familiar Pyewacket (terrific effects by lighting designer Kurt Landisman), casts a spell his way. Then the tables turn and she is swept off her own feet, which is forbidden since she’s a witch. Starting from the moment he arrives at her door, nonplussed as to how he got there, their pairing is delightful to watch, and I found their story not just fun but quite relevant in today’s world of strict social definitions and the challenges facing those who don’t fit them. The tensions that ebb and flow between Gillian and Shep, from attraction to forbidden love, are so thick that you can almost touch them.

Stacy Trevenon’s Stage and Cinema review of Bell, Book and Candle at the San Francisco PlayhouseAnd these two are beautifully complemented by the oddball, wholehearted, and richly developed characterizations of their cohorts: Gillian’s brother Nicky is played by a devilishly delightful Scott Cox, with just the right level of aplomb – his facial expressions and vocal intonations are packed with implication; fellow witch Queenie is played by Zehra Berkman, whose balanced mix of bubbliness, sweetness and naughtiness cast just the right spell. These supporting actors did a fine job nailing both of those characters’ vacillating temperaments and genuine intentions, for good or for naughty.

Stacy Trevenon’s Stage and Cinema review of Bell, Book and Candle at the San Francisco PlayhouseIt may be a comedy, but I found myself keying into the dramatic undercurrents, guided by the actors’ skill in capturing and revealing what was bubbling in their characters’ emotional cauldrons. Gillian may have swept Shep off his feet with Pyewacket’s help, but does that make for a happy ending? Not when you’re a witch for whom love means losing your powers, and when you’re quaking because your secret is about to be blown by a bombastic author named Sidney Redlitch (Louis Parnell), who has his eye on a sensational expose.

It all mounts toward an inevitable revelation for Gillian that devastates her romance with Shep – or does it? Love may or may not win out, but the clever dialogue delivered by this amusing company makes for engrossing viewing. It only faltered for a few moments with Sidney’s appearance, which slowed the energy down a bit (perhaps that’s what happens when humans dilute a witch’s spell).

Stacy Trevenon’s Stage and Cinema review of Bell, Book and Candle at the San Francisco PlayhouseCostume designer Abra Berman’s creations beautifully underscored and defined the characters who came from the witchy realm versus everyday humans. Bill English, doubling as set designer, creates a whole world with that passionate red ottoman that defines the living room, and his backdrop of New York City with a strategically passing full moon is spectacular. So are the moody lighting effects, with acknowledgement to the small army of electricians. No less magical were the properties: The old-style rotary phone and the sophisticated living room décor clearly sketched out the place, time, and people. And sound designer Brendan Aames digitally enhanced Gillian’s and Nicky’s voices when they were casting spells, and also added period music that nicely topped off the aura of 1950’s New York City.

All in all, this play invokes enchantment, and makes for an excellent holiday treat.

photos by Jessica Palopoli

Bell, Book and Candle
San Francisco Playhouse at the Walter Casper Teufel Jr. Auditorium
scheduled to end on January 19, 2013
for tickets, call (415) 677-9596 or visit

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