Dead ex completes offbeat romantic triangle in JTC's entertaining 'Blithe Spirit'
A standard device of the classic drawing room comedy is the man with too many women: a wife and an ex-wife; a wife and a mistress; dueling girlfriends. In 1941, Noel Coward added a new, um, element to this classic situation in his comedy, “Blithe Spirit,” about a man, his wife, and the ghost of his previous wife (deceased). A fizzy concoction as dry as a martini, written as an antidote to the gloom of World War II, “Blithe Spirit” materializes once more in an upbeat and elegant new production by Jewel Theatre Company, the season finale to its seventh season.
For this production, JTC Artistic Director Julie James, who frequently appears onstage, opts to stay in the background, co-directing the play with Diana Torres Koss (who also takes a featured role). Together, they cook up a spry comedy of bad manners, nicely played and beautifully designed, that captures the essence of Coward's central joke about English aplomb in the face of the utterly surreal.
Charles Condomine (an excellent Shaun Carroll), is an amiable English novelist with a house in the country. He is married to droll, competent Ruth (Cristina Anselmo), who briskly stage-manages their life so her husband is free to write. They are the perfect playful, martini-swilling, wisecracking drawing room comedy couple, although it's the second marriage for Charles, whose first wife, Elvira, died young. (Evidently, she died laughing, listening to a musical comedy on BBC radio.)
To gather material for a new crime novel, Charles and Ruth hold a séance in their home. They invite their friends, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Marcus Cato and Geraldine Byrne) to dinner, along with Madame Arcati (played with vibrant, appealing brio by co-director Torres Koss), a flamboyant, eccentric medium swathed in robes and beads who rides her bicycle everywhere and considers herself attuned to the supernatural. Charles assumes she's a crackpot; all he's looking for is atmosphere for his book, and it's all the others can do to keep a straight face and humor the old girl as she goes into her routine, gathering them all round a table to summon the spirit world.
Imagine everyone's surprise when Madame Arcati's parlor tricks succeed in conjuring the very visible ghost of Charles' first wife, Elvira (Diahanna Davidson, in a flowing, bleached beige gown, pallid make-up and frosted wig to underscore her ethereal quality). At least she's visible to the horrified Charles; much of the comedy comes from his desperate attempts to field banter from both wives at once, and Ruth's increasing umbrage, thinking the barbs Charles flings at Elvira are meant for her.
Of course, Madame Arcati has no clue how to send Elvira back to the great beyond. And the impish Elvira is delighted to be back in the home she shared with Charles, eager to sow merry mayhem in his relationship with his new wife. But as strained as things are—once Charles finally convinces Ruth that the ghostly Elvira does exist—it soon gets worse for Ruth when Charles starts to warm up to the idea of cohabiting with both wives. ("It could be a great deal of fun," he chirps to the unamused Ruth.) But Elvira, it soon develops, has plans of her own.
Davidson delivers a deliciously mischievous Elvira; her patter is crisp and she shows us what Charles found both so seductive and irritating about her. Anselmo stumbled over her dialogue a bit on opening night, but otherwise she perfectly captures Ruth's attitude of deadpan asperity. She also gets the biggest laugh of the night. ("I can't feel your simile is entirely fortunate," she observes delicately, when Mrs. Bradman suggests the departing Condomine servants are like rats leaving a sinking ship.) Kendall Callaghan is also sweetly funny as an over-eager parlor maid.
Ron Gasparinetti's lovely set evokes late-'30s, upper-class refinement (complete with vintage Victrola and lace-draped piano). And big kudos to Christina Dinkel's wonderful period costumes, especially the ladies' silky, rich-looking evening gowns in the opening scene. True, Elvira's bleached wig makes her look a lot older than the boyish Charles onstage, but that's a small quibble in this generally blithe and bonny entertainment.
“Blithe Spirit” runs May 3-20 at Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $23-28. For tickets and more info, visit jeweltheatre.net, or call 425-7506.
Photo: Steve DiBartolomeo
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