BLITHE SPIRIT: Comedy by Noel Coward. Directed by Mark Rucker. California Shakespeare Theatre (Cal Shakes), Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (formerly 100 Gateway Blvd), Orinda, CA 94563. 510.548.9666 or www.calshakes.org. August 8 – September 2, 2012.
BLITHE SPIRIT a brilliant resurrection
California Shakespeare Company (Cal Shakes) has raided the American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) company to stock the cast for their production of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. It was a brilliant move as they resurrect this 70 year old drawing room comedy just as the inimitable Madame Arcati brought to protoplasmic life Elvira who had passed over to the “other side.”
The only non A.C.T. associate Domenique Lozano plays the pivotal role of Madame Arcati. She follows a distinguished line of actors who have dominated the role. The first actors to invest Madame Arcati with theatrical life in 1941 were Margaret Rutherford in London (she was also cast in the movie), Mildred Nantwick in the New York and most recently Angela Lansbury in 2009 winning a Tony for Best Featured Actress. Lozano, as directed by Mark Rucker, adds a different spin to the character that makes Arcati less loveable and a bit harsh. That is not a criticism but an observation since her performance was well received with the audience giving her an added burst of applause at the curtain calls.
Who is this Madame Arcati that dominates the opening paragraphs of this review? She is the product of Noel Coward’s fertile satiric mind that fashioned Blithe Spirit over a period of five days while on retreat in Wales after his London quarters were bombed in 1941. It was his successful attempt to create a comedy to cheer a British populous under continual bombing attacks by the Nazis. It was a huge success running for almost 2,000 performances.
The main character is not Madame Arcati, although actors covet playing the role that is designed to steal scenes. It seems that novelist Charles Condomine (Anthony Fusco) now married to his second wife Ruth (Rene Augesen) in doing research for a new mystery book, arranges a séance to be performed by the ditzy local spiritual medium Madame Arcati whom is suspected of being a charlatan. Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Kevin Ralston and Melissa Smith) share a pre-séance dinner served by an inept Edith (Rebekah Brockman) and stay expecting a bit of fun at Madame Arcati’s expense. Horrors, Arcati is the real thing and she accidentally conjures up the spirit of Elvira (Jessica Kitchens) the selfish and spoiled first wife of Charles.
It seems that Charles is the only one able to see Elvira. This allows Coward to write some witty bits of dialog between Charles and Elvira that are misinterpreted by Ruth who becomes hysterically distraught. Things go from bad to worse when Elvira, with murder in her heart, decides to sabotage Charles’s second marriage to Ruth. Hilarious wildness ensues with surprising plot twists and disastrous results that keep you enthralled.
Cal Shakes elected to perform the play in its original three act format lasting 2 hours and forty minutes with two 10 minute intermissions. Doing so is confirmation of Henri Bergson’s concept of relative time can be encapsulated in “who notices time when you’re having fun?” Seasoned actors Augenson and Fusco perform with authority giving equal depth to their verbal duels although Coward gives Charles the last words. Jessica Kitchens, a recent A.C.T. MFA graduate, is a vision of beauty as the ghostly Elvira and A.C.T. MFA student Rebekah Brockman as Edith is a joy to watch.
Much of that credit given to the actors must be shared by Mark Rucker’s spot on direction that matches his reign over the 2009 Cal Shakes multi award winning staging of Private Lives. Annie Smart’s set uses the full outdoor stage and although expansive has the intimate feeling needed for a drawing room comedy. What happens to that tidy set in the final scenes is shocking. The attachment of white wisteria and a flowering bush outside of the ubiquitous French doors is a nice touch. Not to be outdone by the acting, directing and sets Katherine Roth’s costume designs including the garish “spiritual” outfit worn by Madam Arcati earn equal accolades.
Kedar K. Adour, MD
Courtesy of www.theatreworldinternetmagazine.com.