Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Escaping to the shores of Wales from London's nightly blitzes of horror, it seems that nothing could be more natural and timelier for Noël Coward than to help himself and his audiences forget the war for a couple of hours by writing a new script guaranteed to elicit giggles and guffaws. Opening in the West End in 1941, his Blithe Spirit (written in only six days) set records as London's longest-running non-musical ever, and the delightful, over-the-top comedy of manners has continued to this day, sending audiences into spasms of howling laughter. That certainly is the case at City Lights Theater Company as a fantastically directed, hilariously performed Blithe Spirit reincarnates this Noël Coward treasure in which an eccentric medium, a mischievous ghost of a past wife, a not-too-pleased present wife, and a husband rather enjoying sudden bigamy together occupy a house full of spooky surprises.
Charles Condomine wants to do some research for his next book by inviting to his home in Kent, England a local woman who delves freely into the realms of otherworldly spirits. Also at the dinner are his wife Ruth and their friends, Dr. Bradman (a skeptic of such things) and his wife Violet (a professed lover of fortune tellers). Even numerous pre-dinner martinis can hardly prepare them for the entrance of Madame Arcati, who arrives on her bike with a long, velvet skirt hiked up over a man's belt around her waist, revealing her bare legs. Like Charles, she is also a published author–her books being "whimsical children's stories" and "enthusiastic biographies of minor royalty"–but her real claim to fame is as a medium whose first, self-induced trance was at the age of four and first manifestation of a spirit from the beyond at the age of five-and-a-half.
She has arrived to conduct a séance with a foursome who are doing all they can not to snicker at her strange, most peculiar mannerisms and séance preparations. Madame Arcati walks outside to chat with a nearby cuckoo bird; she strokes and smells and then quickly rejects the table proposed by Ruth for the séance; and she marches around the living room, humming in strange tones and frantically fanning her face with outstretched hands. But when she starts singing in a child's voice, "Little Tommy Tucker," while playing hopscotch on the carpet, followed soon by sudden shrieks and guttural sounds, it is all the four can do not to burst into laughter as they now sit at the table with hands on its surface and fingers extended and touching the others. (We in the audience, on the other hand, are in continuous stitches.)
Madame Arcati is trying to arouse her spiritual go-between–seven-year-old Daphne who died in 1844–who might connect them with some dead soul wanting to return to this life. That something might go wrong has already been hinted at several times by Coward's clever script. Ruth early on says to her husband, "I have a feeling this evening is going to be awful." (She has no idea!) Madame Arcati reacts to the evening's menu including meat to warn, "I make it a rule never to eat meat before I work; it sometimes has a very odd effect ... [but] if it's not very red ... we'll risk it." And when Madame insists that they play a phonograph of Irving Berlin (because "Daphne is attached to him") and chooses "Always," the disturbed and almost frantic look on Charles' face says it all: That love song was special for him and someone he would rather not see again tonight.
After Madame Arcati collapses onto the floor to enter into a trance, a female voice calls, "Good evening, Charles"–a voice only heard by him but one he immediately with shocked and disbelieving ears recognizes as the wife, Elvira, who died seven years prior. The séance ends with everyone believing nothing really happened, except Charles and a suspecting but not sure Madame Arcati. By the time the guests have all left, the real evening's entertainment is just beginning, at least for the audience.
When the patio doors suddenly open with a sounded breeze, a beautiful, young woman enters with an impish grin, wearing a stylish gown with a skirt cut to reveal lots of leg and a bodice purposely showing tempting breasts. That she can only be seen by her once-husband and not by his now-wife is perfect for what she has planned; but for the irritated Charles, it is a nightmare in the making. As he shouts in response to her teasing inquiries and remarks, "Shut up" and "Be quiet ... You're acting like a guttersnipe," Ruth becomes more and more irritated, thinking he is talking to her. As the next few hours and days progress, husband, live wife Ruth, and dead (or at least once-dead) wife Elvira now cohabitate in a household packed with fits and fights, plots and ploys, surprises and suspicions as well as marital passions both rekindled and those on the fast wane.
The cast assembled could hardly be better than this group of seven fine comedic actors whose varied, British accents and mannerisms all are like watching a BBC special. As Ruth, Maria Marquis finds a hundred ways to convey the increasing irritation and indignation she as current wife feels toward both her husband and the unseen, deceased wife she finally has come to believe is actually there–from pouting lips to sharp consonants to looks that could kill. On the other hand, Georgia Ball's Elvira is clearly having a ball being back on earth and being a pain in the side of Ruth. Her Elvira teems with a plethora of devilish and scheming expressions. Her expressive eyes full of sparkle, smirking lips of fiery red, and taunting moves of temptation are parts of her lurking presence that only Charles can see but Ruth increasingly can sense.
As Charles, George Psarras soars every moment he is on stage, especially as events unfold in which one wife's plot backfires to change the destiny of the other. How many ways can he have emotional outbursts and tantrums? Now he is like a little boy pouting; now he is a hurt puppy whimpering; now he is a shaking, shouting madman ready for the asylum. And he is all of these and much more first with one wife and then with the other and finally with both at the same time. With each separately and both together, he time and again teams up to create scenes full of farce, fun and fury.
But without a wildly weird Madame Arcati full of riotous, rib-tickling antics, there is no Blithe Spirit. City Lights Executive Artistic Director Lisa Mallette steps with evident glee and gusto into the role of Madame Arcati, sporting a high-pitched, wonderfully accented voice that borders on cartoonish. Her Madame sports larger-than-life moves of all her limbs as she parades around the stage in search of the spirits. She also exudes a pleasing personality that is full of quirk but also evident of genuine heart.
Along with Kyle Smith as the rather pompous and proper Dr. Bradman, and Roneet Aliza Rahamim as his wife Ruth, effusive and enthused about the séance and Madame Arcati, Skylar Rose Adams deserves her own set of accolades as the mostly silent but always chuckle-producing maid, Edith. Whether moving decanters and bottles on a too-full serving table with the same concentration as moving chess pieces on a crowded board or walking across the floor with carefully plotted steps–part bow-legged cowhand, part stalking soldier in nature–Edith draws some of the night's loudest rounds of laughter time and again.
What ensures that this cast's talents are reaped every minute is the comic genius of director Mark Anderson Phillips. So many little touches that add up to major laughs are clearly a director's inspiration–ideas conceived probably in partnership with the actors themselves and resulting in their own outbursts of laughter during rehearsals. Madame Arcati repeatedly bending over to talk to an unseen, non-present Elvira as if she were the child Daphne is only one of the scores of wildly funny, scenic touches conceived and executed by director and cast.
Joining in the merry making is the entire creative team. The lovely country house set designed by Ron Gasparinetti seems so comfortable and inviting that it is hard not to wander around it during intermission to peruse the old phonograph albums inside the vintage, 1940s radio and record player or to explore the wall shelves full of books, pictures, and knickknacks in a room complete with roaring fireplace. But when that same room along with its many properties (designed by Karen S. Leonard) transforms into another of the evening's lead characters by acting out its own spooky mirth and mischief, the genius and prowess of the two designers becomes totally apparent.
So much enjoyment also comes from the 1940s soundtrack of music that is only one aspect of the sound design by George Psarras, in which thunder crackling, a car backing out of a driveway, and a host of thuds and creaks play major parts of the script's unfolding fun. The many subtle shifts in lighting designed by Ed Hunter show off the set to its finest, but better yet, the well-timed lighting effects designed with tongue-in-cheek play all-important roles in the supernatural joviality, too. Pat Tyler's costume designs are equally accomplished members of this team of mirth-makers, especially each time Madame Arcati appears in outfits befitting only a free spirit like her.
No matter how many times one may have laughed through the near three hours (here, with one fifteen-minute intermission and one five-minute pause) of merry-making in previous productions of Noël Coward's widely and wildly popular Blithe Spirit, grab a ticket today and discover entirely new and different ways director Mark Anderson Phillips and this City Lights cast and creative team have found to ensure an evening of out-of-this-world hilarity.
Blithe Spirit runs through April 23, 2023, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 Second Street, San Jose CA. For tickets and information, please visit cltc.org.