High on Cal Shakes’ spiffy Spirit

Aug 16

Blithe Spirit 1
Dominique Lozano (center) is Madame Arcati, the outsize medium who sets the ghostly plot moving in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, now at California Shakespeare Theater. Also at the seance are (from left) Melissa Smith, Anthony Fusco, René Augesen and Kevin Rolston. BELOW: Augesen’s Ruth reacts to the ghostly presence of Jessica Kitchens (right) as Elvira, first wife of Charles (Fusco on the couch). Photos by Kevin Berne

Noël Coward was a man of his time in many ways and maybe even ahead of his time in others. For instance, in the delightful 1941 play Blithe Spirit, now gracing the Orinda Hills in a handsome and well-tuned production from California Shakespeare Theater, Coward was way ahead of the ghastly Twilight curve.

No, he wasn’t dealing with pale but attractive vampires and shirtless werewolves, but he did understand a little something about mixing mortality and romance. In the play, the ghost of a dead wife returns to haunt her husband and his new wife, but her real aim is to get her beloved to join her on the other side, and she’s not above trying to kill him herself to accomplish that goal. To love someone enough to want to spend eternity with them is an intriguing concept, and thankfully Coward played it for laughs, with only a trace of the shadows poking through the peaked meringue of his comedy.

Director Mark Rucker’s buoyant production is full of sly, well-observed moments that help ground Coward’s smooth-as-dressing-gown-silk dialogue as it flies quickly and crisply through a foggy night in the Orinda Hills. By all rights, a drawing room comedy like this shouldn’t work in the great outdoors, with hawks and bats making guest appearances in the play’s rural Kent setting. But Annie Smart’s marvelous set is elegantly cozy without pretending it’s not outside. York Kennedy’s lights are warm when they need to be and ghostly cool when they don’t.

Anthony Fusco is wonderful as British prig Charles Condomine, a mystery novel writer dealing with a furious and confused living wife and a scheming, ethereally lovely dead wife. Charles is not terribly likeable, but Fusco makes him fun, and by the end we’re even rooting for him a little.

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As the ghostly Elvira, Jessica Kitchens as as lovely as she needs to be (and then some), outfitted in flowing, creamy white elegance by costumer Katherine Roth. All we really need to know about Elvira is that she’s charming and bratty in equal measure. She’s an annoying ghost, but Kitchens softens her edges with sexy mischief.

Blithe Spirit is always in danger of being overwhelmed by the actor playing eccentric medium Madame Arcati, who travels everywhere on her bicycle and delivers schoolgirl aphorisms like the most valiant trouper on the planet. Certainly Domenique Lozano steals every scene she’s in, but the rest of the production is sharp enough to contain her beguiling performance without upsetting the comic balance. The most rewarding aspect of Lozano’s energetic, comically dexterous performance is that for all her goofiness, Madame Arcati seems like a sincere person with talents and intelligence to bolster her eccentricities.

The nicest surprise of this spirited Spirit is how it becomes the story of Ruth Condomine, the reluctantly haunted second wife who finds herself fighting for her husband with a ghost she cannot see or hear. On loan from American Conservatory Theater (as is most everyone involved in this production), René Augesen is all smart elegance and ferocity as she goes from horror at her husband’s inexplicable and astonishing behavior (he swears he sees the ghost of his dead first wife) to grudging acceptance and willingness to fight with everything she’s got. Augesen’s Ruth is emotional and grounded, a woman who feels her way of life is at stake and well worth a serious fight.

It’s not that Blithe Spirit needs gritty acting to make its sophisticated repartee work, but the warmth and relatable human-size stakes offered by Augesen and Lozano help make the play more than a pleasant diversion with an improbable plot. Their spirit makes this comedy more than blithe. It’s a farce with force.

[bonus interview]
I chatted with the lovely Jessica Kitchens about her work in Bay Area theaters and her spirited turn as Elvira for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit continues through Sept. 2 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $35-$71. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

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