Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Magic of the Theater: A Review of Barbara Ashford's Spellcast

SpellcastAnyone who has gone to a good theater production knows that the stage contains a magic of its own.  I'm not necessarily talking about just Broadway shows or those on London's West End, although these often do contain magic.  No, I'm talking about any production that takes on a life of its own, where the script is just the beginning, and where the members of the audience become active players in the drama.  It can happen anywhere, from New York to New Prague, from Tony-winning shows to those performed by grade school children.  There is something about the stage, the lights, the curtain, the costumes and makeup, and most importantly, the idea of make-believe that has the potential to imbue any theatrical production with magic.

Which is why Barbara Ashford's novel Spellcast makes so much sense.  Spellcast tells the story of Maggie Graham, a thirty-something who loses her job at the beginning of the novel and decides to head to Vermont to figure out what to do with her life.  As she's driving she is inexplicably drawn to a small town called Dale, and once she's there, she finds herself auditioning for a summer theater company.  She gets parts in all three of that summer's productions--Brigadoon, a new play entitled The Sea-Wife, and Carousel--and soon finds herself immersed in a world that seems a bit too good to be real.

Ashford does a number of things very well in Spellcast.  For starters, she sets up the novel as she would a play.  It is divided into three acts, with a brief entr'acte in between Act I and Act II, and then again between Act II and Act III, both of which are told from the director's point of view, rather than Maggie's (as the rest of the novel is).  This structure does much to draw attention to one of the main themes of the novel--the way in which Maggie's life is reflected in and influenced by the plays that she performs that summer.

While this aspect of the novel might lose something for readers not familiar with either Brigadoon or Carousel, it worked very well for me, particularly because it gave me a chance to rethink a musical that has always troubled me greatly--Carousel.  Ever since I played in the pit orchestra for this musical when I was in high school, I have found Carousel's portrayal of domestic violence to be very troubling.  Much like Maggie, I had written off the musical as the product of a by-gone time, with nothing to make it relevant to me today.  Maggie's struggle to identify with her character--the ever-hopeful Nettie--and the struggles the other cast members have to portray their characters provided me with a way to think of this classic Rogers and Hammerstein production as still useful for theater-goers today.

While Ashford's novel does contain a plot with actual supernatural elements, it is the depiction of the life-changing potential of the theater--possible in a world even without magic spells, fairies, wizards, or the like--that I think is the strongest element of the book.  Spellcast accurately captures the intense emotional highs and lows that occur during summer arts programs--those that occur both onstage and off--and Ashford's ability to make readers reconsider well-known (and even long rejected) productions is where the true magic of the novel lies.