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Tucson Weekly Delightfully Undead

Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit Still Has Plenty Of Laughs

By Margaret Regan

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  NOEL COWARD IS the debonair master of the English drawing room comedy, and his entertaining Blithe Spirit has his requisite mix of loony stiff-upper-lip repartee and broad physical comedy.

The opening production of the Arizona Theatre Company season, the play is peopled with the usual complement of English country-house types: sophisticated man of letters, complaining wife, clumsy housemaid, country doctor who likes his drink. But what makes this 1941 play so delightful is the collision of the spirit world with polite drawing room society. And in Coward's deft hands that spirit world is demoted to a pedestrian place where ghosts want to motor about, where Joan of Arc is "rather fun," in short, a place comically like English upper-class life.

The lunacy begins when a cynical author, Charles (Kurt Rhoads), arranges a seance so he can get material for his next book. He, his second wife Ruth (Katherine Leask), and their friends Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, skeptics all, can barely hold in the giggles at the inept antics of the sublimely eccentric medium, Madame Arcati (Claudia Wilkens). Her main achievements seem to be making the drawing room table wobble and tumbling into dramatic trances. But unbeknownst to her, she accidentally materializes an "ectoplasmic manifestation," the petulant ghost of Charles' first wife. Visible only to her ex-husband, the naughty Elvira (Nance Williamson) returns to take up the leisurely country life exactly where she left off--driving into Folkestone to see an old friend, puttering in the garden, and, best of all, knocking heads with Charles' grimly proper second wife. Blithe Spirit becomes a war of the sexes, with two wives--one living and one dead--doing battle with the same hapless husband.

The whole cheerfully foolish business is seen as a man's worst nightmare, with a man's best revenge just waiting in the wings. Ruth is distraught over her rival's re-occupation of the house, and Charles lamely tries to convince her that the three Considines, one Mister and two Mrs., could have "jolly fun" together. Ruth is having none of it, however, and undertakes to exorcise her predecessor.

On the page, Coward's dialogue isn't all that funny, and even on the stage the arguing between husband and each of his wives occasionally lapses into tedium. Yet the playwright's particular genius was in knowing how this silliness would translate into live theatre. In the hands of actors blessed with a gift for timing, it's laugh-out-loud funny. And, fortunately, ATC has assembled a superb cast.

Wilkens delivers a show-stopping performance as the batty Madame Arcati. A big woman, Wilkens uses her bulk to exquisite comic advantage. Swathed in a divine orange costume that combines showy bohemian scarves and psychic beads with sensible English country wear, Wilkens draws herself up indignantly to her vast height when it's suggested that she might be a fake. She shudders her impressive lips at times of distress, throws herself enthusiastically onto the floor for trances, and, when she finds the Considines consider her a fool, erupts into a breathlessly regal monologue that's one of the best moments in the play.

But everyone is good. Sally Jo Bannow makes even Edith the housemaid into a major comic character. All arms and legs, like the maid Amelia Bedelia of children's book fame, Bannow makes the simple task of clearing away the tea things--the tray heaved up onto her shoulders, no less--into a heart-stopping moment. All three Considines do just what's expected of them: Rhoads playing Charles as a sophisticate just this side of a cad (Coward played the part himself in the original London production); Williamson, who's married to Rhoads in real life, slinking around in a ghostly gray evening gown as the sensuous Elvira; Leask sturdily haughty as Ruth. A couple of locals, Benjamin Stewart and Maedell Dixon, liven up the minor parts of the doctor and his wife.

Guest Director Gary Gisselman, former ATC artistic director, wisely has pushed this crew into the broadest possible physical comedy, hastening the dialogue to comic speed, while allowing extra time for Edith to stumble and Elvira to throw just one more vase. Incidentally, the ghostly special effects are a treat: Now just how did ATC get those tables to rise and pots to fly?

Production notes tell us this light comedy about death enthralled London audiences during the worst of the wartime blitz, becoming one of the longest-running hits ever. It's interesting that such a goofy play can be so engaging, but there it is.

Blithe Spirit continues through Saturday, October 4, at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Evening and matinee performances are Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets range from $18.50 to $27.50. For reservations and information, call 622-2823.

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