Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - June 17, 2011

Fizzy and funny

Palo Alto Players take on Coward's classic 'Blithe Spirit'

by Karla Kane

A sultry ex-spouse swooping in to stir up trouble would be awkward for any relationship, but if said ex is returning from beyond the grave, things can get even more complicated.

A meddlesome ghost wreaking domestic havoc on an affluent British couple is the focus of Noel Coward's 1941 supernatural drawing-room comedy "Blithe Spirit," currently being performed by Palo Alto Players.

Ruth and Charles are a well-to-do, seemingly happily wed pair, married for five years. It's the second marriage for both, and a portrait of Charles' firecracker of a first wife, the late Elvira, still hangs over the mantle, though she died seven years prior. Pragmatic Ruth claims not to be jealous of Elvira's apparently considerable charms. Naturally, the lady doth protest too much.

Charles, a novelist, invites the village eccentric, Madame Arcati, over one evening to perform a seance so that he can get ideas for a character in his next book. Snobbish Ruth and Charles, along with their guests Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, find the whole thing terribly amusing, mocking and making snide remarks behind the medium's back.

Madame Arcati earnestly conducts the seance, complete with trance and contact "on the other side," but seemingly nothing happens. It soon becomes evident, however, that the seance was indeed a success. The ritual summons the specter of Elvira (complete with sparkling skin and shimmering gown), whom only Charles (and the audience) can see and hear.

Shenanigans and comedic misunderstandings quickly ensue. At first Ruth suspects Charles of trying to trick her, then of him having lost his marbles. But she soon becomes convinced of — and annoyed by — the ectoplasmic Elvira's presence. Alluring and bubbly Elvira is on a mission, to win back her husband at any cost, and her presence grows increasingly sinister. And while she insists it was Charles who summoned her back, making him an "astral bigamist," he swears he did not. And if he didn't, who did? The plot thickens.

"Blithe Spirit" is silly and fluffy, but sometimes that is exactly what one wants from a night at the theater. I'm an incurable Anglophile, and a sucker for a fun ghost story, as well as for Coward's crisp, witty and elegant writing. The show takes a light-hearted approach to death and the afterlife, with the characters just unsympathetic enough for viewers to feel they deserve whatever cosmic mishaps they get themselves into.

The Palo Alto Players cast members all do a good job in their roles. Freya Shipley's Ruth is the right amount of shrill and snooty, so that the audience doesn't feel too sorry for her. Nicole Martin's Elvira is suitably saucy, although her attempt at a British accent is sketchy at best. Michael Sally's leading man Charles is likeable, though the character takes a bitter turn toward the end.

The standout is veteran comedienne Debi Durst's Madame Arcati, who absolutely steals every scene she's in. It's a hammed up, scenery-chewing character, and Durst is so wonderful that the over-the-top tone is just right. While the rest of the characters are rather frivolous and catty, Madame Arcati, though cartoonish, is full of heart: blustering, preposterous and exuberant. I wanted to be her, or hang out with her for the day, or at the very least borrow her wardrobe (kudos to designer Mary Cravens for that).

Patrick Klein's cozy, English home circa 1940s set, is well done, and full of hokey yet clever haunted surprises. The lighting is excellent, indicating the frequent changes from evening to daylight to dark-and-stormy night. A pleasing soundtrack of jazzy tunes from the 1920s to the '40s keeps toes tapping in between scenes, including Coward's own beautiful "London Pride," a personal favorite.

The play was apparently cut down from its original three acts to two in its modern incarnation, and I wonder if a bit may have been lost in the rearranging. The conclusion seemed a bit rushed, and I was somewhat confused (not to say too much, for fear of spoilers) as to the exact significance of the ditzy maid, Edith (hilariously performed with screwball aplomb by Breigh Zack) with regards to the psychic goings-on.

All in all, "Blithe Spirit" is a fizzy, funny, high-spirited evening's entertainment.

What: "Blithe Spirit," a Noel Coward comedy presented by Palo Alto Players

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Through June 26, with shows at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sundays

Cost: Tickets are $16.80-$32.

Info: Go to paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.

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