As one is quick to learn in “Ghost Light,” there are many rules to adhere to in the theater, among them not saying the name of the play you’re performing or to resist whistling in the hallowed hall you’ll be acting in. This is especially true when tackling “The Scottish Play,” more commonly known as Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” since legend has it that when the show’s three witches first appeared in the original production, they actually cast spells that cursed the play for generations to come. Of course, every one of these rules and then some are broken nearly as soon as John Stimpson’s punchy comedy begins, casting a critical eye on a community theater troupe headed up to Western Massachusetts to perform the tragedy “somewhere in the Berkshires.”
Joining the gang inside the “Shakespeare on Wheels” bus, it’s clear a recipe for disaster is brewing inside as a group of has-beens and never-weres either run lines or sleep while their director Henry (Roger Bart) can only look on wondering what he did to end up here. There’s Alex (Cary Elwes), the most famous of the troupe whose fondest memories include a callback for a supporting part in “Top Gun,” and Madeleine (Carol Kane), a method actress eager to embody one of the witches so thoroughly you won’t know where she ends and the Wiccan begins, as well as her husband Elliot (Steve Tom), who keeps track of infractions on theater tradition and Thomas (Tom Riley), who has no regard for any kind of regulations and would likely be walking the boards of Broadway if he hadn’t slept with the wife of the director of his last production. Naturally, he already has eyes for Liz (Shannyn Sossamon), Alex’s wife who shares his interest since her own husband pays so little attention to her.
Theater buffs and Shakespeare aficionados will no doubt find plenty to enjoy in “Ghost Light,” which mischievously begins to weave in the deceit and double-crosses of “Macbeth” into what unfolds as this motley crew attempts to stage it, but what makes Stimpson and co-writer Geoffrey Taylor’s satire especially clever is how the gathered ensemble finds that as more drama takes place behind the scenes, the better their performances are on stage, leaving Henry in a true conundrum as to whether to just roll with it and get the best production possible or put a stop to the madness. The filmmakers make the most of the hothouse vibe that can take over when a group of strangers gathered together for professional reasons have no one to turn to but each other, and without wi-fi or cell service, but plenty of odd events occurring, potentially a result of the curse or not, chaos reigns while a seasoned cast in real life keeps the film moving at a steady clip.
While professionalism would be the last thing you would think of as the Shakespeare on Wheels player run around like chickens with their heads cut off, “Ghost Light” boast top-notch production value across the board, from its killer ensemble of actors that land each of their punchlines with delight, evocative lighting which encourages one to believe in the curse against better judgment, and sharp production design, recreating a quaint New England cottage to house that actors that turns from cozy to cramped quickly when tensions run high. Still, it’s mostly fresh air you feel emanating from “Ghost Light,” which pulls off no small feat in finding the humor in one of the greatest tragedies ever written.