CalShakes ‘Blithe Spirit’ demonstrates Noel Coward’s talent to amuse

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 3/5 » Recommended)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Noel Coward‘s Blithe Spirit is an uncomplicated charmer of a play. Charles Considine is a successful middle-aged writer of mystery novels. He lives a comfortable suburban life in the English countryside with his second wife, Ruth. They are elegant, charming and amusing to watch as they gently and affectionately bicker and try to calm a particularly nervous servant girl as they prepare to welcome dinner guests.

Charles has invited a local medium, Madame Arcati, to join them for dinner and conduct a seance. He is hoping to gather material for a new novel. The dinner party will be rounded out by their skeptical neighbor Dr. Bradman and his wife. Coward tweaked this premise with one delicious detail — Ruth is Charles’s second wife. His first wife Elvira died young seven years ago. The inevitable follows: Madame Arcati conjures up the spirit of Elvira (visible only to the hapless Charles) who immediately takes up residence with the Considines.

The ghostly menage a trois that ensues allows Coward to shower the audience with the sort of witty, cutting, elegant dialogue between married couples of a certain class for which he was famous.

Blithe Spirit is a light weight souffle of a play that rises effortlessly and cannot fail to entertain. The charming and childlike Elvira is deliciously seductive and provides a marvelous contrast to the rather uptight Ruth. Charles’s consternation is fun to watch. Madame Arcati is a beautifully rendered British eccentric in the grand manner.

Domenique Lozano as Madame Arcati and Anthony Fusco as Charles Condomine in Cal Shakes’ production of Blithe Spirit, directed by Mark Rucker. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

Director Mark Rucker presents us with a serviceable Blithe Spirit that reliably delivers the laughs. The production is satisfying, but does not fully realize the potential of Coward’s humor, fluttering about like a baby bird when it should soar like a triumphant eagle. In particular, Domenique Lozano’s Madame Acarti is more bizarre than eccentric, which undermines Coward’s intent. The old dame is funny, alright, but presented as caricature where there ought to be full humanity. Rene Auguesen, making her Cal Shakes debut, gives us a well crafted Ruth and Anthony Fusco is appropriately befuddled as Charles. Rebekah Brockman as the servant girl, Edith, races about to excellent comic effect. Kevin Rolston is humorously pompous as Dr. Bradman, and Melissa Smith is a stand out as his fluttery wife. Best of all is Jessica Kitchens flighty and sparkling Elvira.

Annie Smart’s set incorporates some amusing special effects and Katherine Ross’s costumes, particularly that of Madame Arcati, are appropriately whimsical.

Blithe Spirit continues through September 2 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. For further information, click here.

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“Blithe Spirit” by Noel Coward, produced by CalShakes. Director: Mark Rucker. Set Designer: Annie Smart. Costume Designer: Katherine Roth. Lighting Designer: York Kennedy. 

Ruth Condomine: Rene Augesen. Charles Condomine: Anthony Fusco. Elvira Condomine: Jessica Kitchens. Madame Arcati: Domenique Lozano. Dr. Bradman: Kevin Rolston. Mrs. Bradman: Melissa Smith. Edith: Rebekah Brockman.

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