Shakespeare Festival/L.A.'s producer Ben Donenberg had a great idea in "Hauntings--A Shakespearean Seance" at the Pacific Design Center. Borrowing from a tradition of the 1940s and '50s, Donenberg decided it would be fun to revive the old, vaudeville-inspired "spook show"--and perhaps create a new Halloween tradition for his company.
Unfortunately, this inaugural effort--an evening of ghostly scenes from Shakespeare, linked by music, magic and patter--falls sadly short of spooky.
Despite plenty of highly theatrical razzle-dazzle from director Tom O'Horgan ("Hair"), the selections themselves are meager and predictable: Hamlet's ghostly Father (Patrick O'Connell) lays some downbeat dish on his kid (Ryun Yu); Richard III (David Rainey) quails hammily before the specters of his slain victims; and Macbeth (O'Connell) takes some spectacularly bad advice from a ghastly gaggle of witches (Kay Cole, Aaron Mendelson and Rainbow Underhill).
All in all, it's a thin bill of fare that suffers further from the performance of Eugene Burger as the Spirit Guide, who narrates the specious commentary between scenes. Bearded, bespectacled and prepossessingly droll, Burger is a masterly close-up magician who punctuates the proceedings with demonstrations of the sleight-of-hand for which he is so celebrated. However, as a performer, he lacks the seasoning and know-how to pull this raggle-taggle bag of tricks into a cohesive whole--although one suspects that the resurrected spirit of Olivier himself couldn't have made much of Peter Howard's insipid narration.
Fortunately, dazzling technical effects--including enough manufactured fog to trigger a bronchial condition--distract from the dearth of content. O'Horgan's old lighting designer Jules Fisher (also of "Hair") and lighting co-designer Trevor Norton help establish a properly eerie mood. Douglas Rogers' set, framed by stone pillars and carved zodiacal symbols, looks like a mystic enclave for some arcane Druidic ceremony. Camille Argus' handsome costumes, Dawn Fintor's fine sound, and Snezana Petrovic's wonderfully creepy spirit design--featuring a towering, cowled specter straight out of a nightmare--set the scene for what could have been a far scarier evening, given a little more ghoulish imagination.
Kirk Nurock's edgy, unsettling original music, from the incidental background stuff to the full-fledged production numbers, is a bulwark of the show. The composer himself provides accomplished piano accompaniment for the Three Witches, who perform the bulk of the songs. Cole, Underhill and Mendelson are delightful throughout, cavorting and grimacing like folkloric goblins, hellbent on mischief and mayhem.
"Hauntings--A Shakespearean Seance," Pacific Design Center's Center Green Theater, 8687 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 7:30 and 10 p.m. Ends Oct. 31. $22.50 in advance; $25 at door. (213) 489-4127. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.