'Blithe Spirit' combines Noel Coward's talents well


Published: Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 5:35 p.m.

With a dazzling display of talent by a gifted cast supported by a top-flight production, the Gainesville Community Playhouse is paying homage to Noel Coward's frothy, romantic farce, "Blithe Spirit."

Facts

"Blithe Spirit"

What: Noel Coward comedy about the ghost of a writer's wife who wants her husband to join her in the spirit world.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 10.

Where: Gainesville Community Playhouse, Vam York Theater, 4039 NW 16th. Blvd.

Tickets: $15 (376-4949).

First produced in 1941, "Blithe Spirit" has proven to be one of Coward's most durable plays. Along with "Hay Fever," Private Lives" and "Present Laughter," it has been revived and replayed both on the Broadway stage and by community theaters worldwide.

A prolific playwright as well as a masterful painter, actor, songwriter, poet, film writer and serious composer, Coward brought his comical insight and literate style to everything he created. Nowhere are his multiple talents more evident than in his classic comedy, "Blithe Spirit."

Erin Kleim, who cleverly directed "Blithe Spirit," has assembled a letter perfect and smartly dressed cast (courtesy of Rhonda Wilson's 1930s costumes and stylized wigs) who take over the stage in a luxurious English country home, created by Patricia Thomson and Joe Keena.

The living room, its walls decorated with paintings and assorted bric-a-brac, has the requisite French doors plus other entrances and exits, including a small staircase leading to other parts of the house, and everything necessary for a proper farce.

Against this backdrop, the very British Charles and Ruth Condomine are first seen awaiting their dinner guests. Charles and Ruth, formally dressed in black tie and a dressy long gown respectively, are anticipating an interesting evening. Charles, a successful novelist, has invited Madame Arcati to join him and his guests, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, for dinner. Following the meal, Madame Arcati, an eccentric medium, will conduct a seance from which Charles hopes to learn the "tricks of her trade" to be incorporated in the novel he's writing. Charles gets more than a few "tricks" (a word that clearly antagonizes the volatile Arcati) when she conjures up the ghost of Charles' seven-years-dead wife, Elvira.

The problem? Only the thoroughly unnerved Charles can see and hear her.

The Bradmans leave. Madame Arcati is sent packing. Charles is left alone with two women, one in the flesh and the other of the spirit. Neither is particularly amiable. The ghostly Elvira taunts the corporeal Ruth, who is convinced that Charles is drunk. How else can his rude behavior be explained? Why does he persist in speaking to someone who plainly is not there? Eventually, Ruth comes to realize that she indeed is sharing her home with the ghost of Charles' first wife, while Elvira reveals she has plans for Charles that do not include Ruth.

Charles, the twice-blessed husband, just wants everyone to get along and adapt to the ménage ĺ trois. However, as surely everyone knows (as did Coward), two women cannot exist peacefully in the same house, especially when each thinks she is the mistress of the domain. Madame Arcati is called back to deal with the ghostly situation. The play takes several wild turns before coming to rest in a richly satisfying, place.

Performing "Blithe Spirit" with actors who are not adept at using a British accent wouldn't work. Happily, everyone on stage has mastered the British broad "A," and puts the right emphasis on the word, "Dah-ling!" They look and sound as to the manor born. Little things, like Charles wordlessly signaling to two invisible women to move over on the sofa to make room for him, are so well done.

Doug Diekow, who plays Charles, the twice-blessed husband, is the picture of British hauteur; a very proper and harried British gentleman. Kristin Mercer as Ruth, his second wife, is charming and self-possessed, the perfect wife and hostess. When she loses it, as she does, she's still charming. P.J. O'Connor and Carolyne Salt play the stuffy Dr. and Mrs. Bradman as if they had stepped out of the pages of "Town & Country." As they make their exit, it seems obvious that they will return to a house just like the one they just left.

Samara Golabuk, who materializes as the lovely Elvira, makes a giggly, petulant and naughty ghost. Jorga McAfee is amusing as Edith, a dim-witted maid who is learning the ropes under Ruth's tutelage.

If there is a star in the show it's Jan Cohen as Madame Arcati, the eccentric, bubbly and loquacious medium. Cohen's Arcati takes charge of the stage, swooping around the living room, reciting poems to her contact on the other side, dancing to Irving Berlin's "Always" and marveling at her own command of the supernatural. It has been written that after seeing a performance by Madame Arcati, the expression "striking a happy medium" will forever have new meaning. Believe it!

It's rare when all the components of a production come together and the sum truly is greater than all its parts. The Gainesville Community Playhouse has achieved that full sum and made "Blithe Spirit" the funny, enjoyable show Noel Coward intended it to be.

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