Noel Coward’s hilarious play “Blithe Spirit” has been revived with gusto and skill at the California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes) in the East Bay. The production has an impressive combination of clever dialogue and actors with precise comic timing who accentuate the wit. Like Oscar Wilde’s plays, Coward’s are full of banter and silliness, and just as Rupert Everett seems born to perform Wilde, the Cal Shakes cast is perfect for the play.
The play’s premise is admittedly ridiculous: When doing research for his book, Charles Condomine (Anthony Fusco) finds himself, with the help of dinner guest Madame Arcati (Domenique Lozano), raising the spirit of his dead wife Elvira (Jessica Kitchens), who makes it her mission to wreak havoc with his new wife, Ruth (Rene Augesen). Yet the characters are grounded. Arcati is more concerned about her digestion than the trouble she’s caused through magic. There’s genuine affection–and bickering–between Charles and his two wives. And for the most part, the play answers just enough questions and creates minimal spectacle from the mystical, allowing you to suspend your disbelief for the plot device driving the action.
Coward wrote “Blithe Spirit” in 1941 to lift British spirits during the war, with an initial production full of American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) veterans. It was written in the same era as other great screwball comedy classics like “The Philadelphia Story,” and they all share the same fast-paced dialogue and surprisingly modern female characters who are every bit as witty and gutsy as the men. Although the costumes, set and the ever-present Irving Berlin song “Always” evoke the past, the play feels neither dated nor like a period piece.
A.C.T.’s Rene Augesen, a Bay Area treasure, is a vision as Ruth–sharp, cool and tightly wound–and as usual, she frequently steals the stage. Kitchens as Elvira, Ruth’s foil and predecessor, is a voluptuous blond bombshell, full of audacity and so crafty as to keep up the appearance of innocence while causing a lot of trouble. Fusco, as their husband, is the resident straight man who clearly loves and loved each of his wives. He frequently gets into scrapes when castigating his former wife for the mischief she’s causing; unable to see Elvira, Ruth assumes Charles’ unprovoked scolding is directed at her. Lozano plays Arcati as an eccentric, plucky old lady who rides her bicycle everywhere and is surprisingly real. The rest of the supporting cast is somewhat forgettable: the housemaid Alice is sometimes a bit over-the-top, and the Condomines’ friends (Kevin Rolston and Melissa Smith) are relatively plain, though a good contrast with the vivacious Condomines.
Director Mark Rucker, another A.C.T. veteran, chose to have the play spoken in British accents, which lends the perfect pitch and meter to the dialogue. With any other cast, this could have been a risky move, as few actors can pull off a believable accent, let alone do so without interfering with the quality of their voice work; here, it works perfectly.
The rustic, outdoor Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda is the perfect setting: It’s an intimate space, and sitting outside on a beautiful summer night you feel like you’ve been transported to rural England, where the play takes place. The magic is all the more exciting in the dark. It is outdoor theater at its best: There is no sacrifice in staging, as the very location enhances the elements of the play. It’s also a wonderfully upscale experience–indoor plumbing, comfortable seats and fleece blankets are provided–that allows the audience to experience the country in the same luxury as the wealthy characters would.
“Blithe Spirit” is a light, buoyant comedy with nothing profound to say, but like “The Importance of Being Earnest” or “Much Ado About Nothing,” it is a very clever show. The Cal Shakes production is true to the script–a nonstop laugh riot–making this two-hour-and-40-minute production fly by like a summer breeze.