Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A Breezy Revival of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit
Also see Richard's review of War Horse
I have had a great affection for the droll works of the master craftsman after seeing the American premiere of Blithe Spirit at age 16 at the Morosco Theatre in New York, with Clifton Webb playing Charles, Peggy Wood his wife Ruth, and Mildred Natwick as Madame Arcati. Over the years I have seen 10 productions, mostly in Britain. The most recent was the 2002 American Conservatory Theater production that starred Gregory Wallace as Charles and René Augesen as Elvira, with Lori Larsen taking over the role of the wacky Madame Arcati.
In 1941, Coward wrote this delightful comedy in just five days to lighten the spirits of the British public during the dark days when London was constantly being bombed by German planes and Britain was losing their battles on land. The supernatural farce ran for almost 2000 performances in England from 1941 to 1946.
Blithe Spirit is the story of novelist Charles Condomine (Anthony Fusco), a character probably based on Coward himself, decides to invite local medium Madame Arcati (Domenique Lozano) to his home to conduct a séance, all in the name of research for his new book. Joined by Charles' wife Ruth (René Augesen) and close friends the Bradmans (Kevin Rolston and Melissa Smith), the medium manages to conjure up the spirit of Charles' first wife Elvira (Jessica Kitchens). She is seen only by Charles and she wreaks havoc in the house with her appearance. The problem is how to get rid of the volatile first wife.
This production could be called an American Conservatory Theater production outdoors since director Mark Rucker is an associate artistic director at ACT and six of his seven actors are from ACT: core company members Anthony Fusco and René Augesen, ACT Conservatory Director Melissa Smith, Conservatory student Rebekah Brockman and recent graduate Jessica Kitchens, and Domenique Lozano, a resident artist with both companies.
I have always contended that Mr. Coward's words are jewels when they are spoken by good British actors or English influenced actors who have the right inflection, the right timing, and the right superior attitude. These consummate American actors are able to pull it off in scenes of perfect grand comic proportions. I have dialect coach Lynne Soffer to thank for this, and director Mark Rucker for great and smooth direction of the farce.
Anthony Fusco and René Augesen are old hands at stylish period pieces, and both are perfect here as Charles and Ruth. Fusco lends Charles the right air of self-centeredness and authorial vanity. Even his vexation at being so expansively spooked shines through. René Augesen is outstanding as second wife Ruth, a figure of lethally cold hearted stylishness.
Domenique Lozano is wonderful as Madame Arcati. She plays the role as a bohemian who takes her business serious and goes into a trance by stalking around the furniture expressing barks and ending with tribal cries. In other words, she is a real hoot. Jessica Kitchens, looking a little like the late Marilyn Monroe and playing the role like a sex kitten, gives a splendid performance as Elvira. She gives the role a sense of defenselessness as well as elegance. Kevin Rolston and Melissa Smith give stand out performances as the Bradmans, while Rebekah Brockman is a rib-tickling delight as Edith, the speeding, slow-witted maid.
Set Designer Annie Smart has opened up this "drawing room" comedy to provide an expansive, upscale, color-coordinated living room and anteroom stage left. Katherine Roth's costumes are very stylish for up market British characters and the lighting by York Kennedy is bright and cheery.
Blithe Spirit is a pleasing entertainment for a warm summer evening and runs through September 2. For tickets call 510-548-9666 or online at www.calshakes.org. California Shakespeare Company will turn to more profound material, Hamlet, opening on September 19th and running through October 14th. The Bruns Amphitheater is located at 100 California Shakespeare Way, Orinda just off Highway 24 one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel. There is complimentary shuttle service from Orinda BART beginning 90 minutes prior to curtain. Complimentary parking onsite.