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Blithe Spirit
The Dolls at Albuquerque Little Theatre



The Dolls, Albuquerque's best-known drag troupe, put on three or four shows a year. Most are original material, the brainchildren of Kenneth Ansloan (aka Tequila Mockingbird), Albuquerque's answer to Charles Busch. For the past few summers, though, The Dolls have been doing their versions of some famous comedies: The Importance of Being Earnest, Auntie Mame, and this year, Blithe Spirit. All are by gay writers, and all have the kind of over-the-top female roles (Lady Bracknell, Mame, Madame Arcati) that Mr. Ansloan excels in. Plus, they offer the other members of The Dolls decent roles to play in drag (and sometimes in male drag).

Blithe Spirit was written by Noel Coward in 1941, was a big hit during the war, and has remained popular ever since. The title comes from the first line of Shelley's poem To a Skylark, but the play has nothing to do with birds, and the spirits conjured up are not especially blithe. Charles Condomine is a writer doing research for a book on the occult, so he invites Madame Arcati to his house for a seance. Charles's late wife Elvira materializes, but only Charles can see and hear her. The problem is that Charles is now married to Ruth, and Elvira wants Charles back. I won't give away the rest of the story.

Recorded tracks of songs from the musical adaptation of the play, High Spirits, with music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray, are inserted into the script, done in typical drag show fashion as lip-synced numbers. I could have sworn I was listening to Eartha Kitt a couple of times, but apparently it was Tammy Grimes. The Madame Arcati songs were done by Beatrice Lillie.

Blithe Spirit is one of those sophisticated concoctions that Coward could toss off seemingly in his sleep. The Dolls could have done it verbatim, with the added songs, and had a good show, but The Dolls never, ever do anything "straight." They raunch everything up, and sometimes bring the sophistication level down to about grade school level, with jokes about "wood peckers" and "number one and number two" and such. Scatological humor doesn't do much for me, but the dirty jokes do get some laughs, so maybe The Dolls know what they're doing.

The production values for this show are higher than what The Dolls usually have to work with. The set and props, by John van der Meer and Nina Dorrance, are exceptional. The costumes and wigs—the raison d'etre of any Dolls show—are, as usual, fabulous. They were provided by House of Dolls, Off Broadway, Stacia Segovia and Wes Haggard, and you have to wonder how they ever found clothes and hairpieces like these in New Mexico.

Kenneth Ansloan directs, with assistance from Jim Johns, and stars as Madame Bacardi (changed from Arcati, but the joke goes nowhere). He looks terrific in outrageous dresses and wigs, as usual, and he has a resonant voice that carries easily through the Albuquerque Little Theatre. However, despite its name, the Little Theatre is a little too big for this show. Since the show isn't amplified, several of the other actors' voices don't project well enough for us to catch every line. Dean Eldon Squibb, as Charles, does manage to be heard easily, and is to be congratulated for pulling off a role he had just stepped into about a week before opening, when the other actor withdrew.

Bradd Howard plays Ruth convincingly but it's a little hard to catch all of his dialogue. Somehow, his bra size seems to expand every time she changes costume. Poor A. J. Carian as Elvira not only got left out of the program, but doesn't even get a costume change. Looking something like the ghost of Marilyn Monroe, he wafts around the stage on precariously high heels, but never stumbles, neither on his feet nor in his performance. Jim Johns plays the maid Edith like a bull in a china shop, which becomes tiresome after about ten seconds.

I'm proud that Albuquerque has supported The Dolls for many years now, and I hope the city will continue to do so. I think The Dolls are more successful doing original works than well-known plays. Maybe that's because when you go to a new Dolls show, you never know what to expect and are usually pleasantly surprised. Ken Ansloan is a witty writer and can even be poignant. Whereas, when you go to something like Blithe Spirit, you already have expectations, and when The Dolls mess around with the play, it's a bit of a letdown. But then again, if they didn't mess around, it wouldn't be a Dolls show.

Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward is being performed by The Dolls at the Albuquerque Little Theatre, 224 San Pasquale SW, Albuquerque, 87104, through August 19, 2012. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00. Tickets $15, or $13 for ALT subscribers. More info at (505) 242-4750 or albuquerquelittletheatre.org.

--Dean Yannias



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