High on Cal Shakes’ spiffy Spirit

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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.

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.

Arresting cop drama keeps Steady in Marin

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Kevin Rolston (left) is Joey and Khris Lewin is Denny, two talkative Chicago cops on a downward spiral in the West Coast premiere of Keith Huff’s A Steady Rain at Marin Theatre Company. Photos by Ed Smith

I can’t imagine what it was like to see Keith Huff‘s A Steady Rain when it was on Broadway almost three years ago starring Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig as two Chicago cops navigating a tricky moral and ethical path through their demanding jobs. Was it possible to say anything but the two mega-watt movie stars flattening vowels to the best of their pretend Midwestern abilities? Was Huff’s taut two-man play even visible underneath the star power?

The answer is: probably not. And that’s OK. The play, as seen in its West Coast premiere at Marin Theatre Company, is an engaging, sturdily built vehicle to showcase two contrasting actors. The one playing Denny gets to be all Italian-American bravado and veer in the audience’s collective mind from being the bad cop to maybe being the good cop and back to being bad cop. Denny has a volatile temper that flares as often as his compassion and willingness to be a hero. He’s a proud family man, but his badge-bolstered ego and his “I’ll do it all myself” pride make him dangerous and extremely vulnerable.

The actor playing Joey gets a richer role. He’s Denny’s best friend since kindergarten (and has received his share of beatings from Denny since then as well), and he’s never really emerged from the shadow of his buddy. They’ve been patrol partners with the Chicago police force for years, and Joey, through his battles with the bottle, is the one who begins noticing that their casual racist remarks (especially Denny’s) could get them into real trouble. When Joey reminds Denny to watch his mouth during an arrest of drug-toting gang bangers (or “gang-banging ethno-shit,” as Denny puts it), Denny dismisses Joey as a “PC fly boy” and says the thugs should “start tolerating my intolerance.”

For Denny, being PC, having to watch his mouth or do things according to procedure “leech the testosterone out of the law.”

That’s a telling attitude and one that gets Denny and Joey into some deep, deep trouble.

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Huff’s play is a little like one of those donuts cops are supposed to like so much – it’s a tasty guilty pleasure that seems filling at the time but leaves you wanting more. The general feel of the play evokes a B movie cop thriller, but Huff has tweaked it and made it theatrical by turning the screenplay outline into a play where the cops describe the action scenes. A Steady Rain has explosions and car chases and bloody combat, drugs, whores and a famous cannibal/serial killer. But all we see are two guys – one in a suite (Joey) and one in casual dress (Denny) – doing an awful lot of talking.

The difference in complexity of the characters shows in the actors’ performances. Khris Lewin exudes dangerously slick charm as Denny, while Kevin Rolston digs deep and gives us a conflicted, slowly evolving Joey. Playwright Huff has talked about wanting audiences to make up their own minds about which is the good cop and which the bad. He clearly enjoys toying with the audience as he reveals unappealing aspects of both men, neither of whom is a saint or even a scrupulous cop.

I didn’t have any trouble deciding where my loyalty lay. Denny inflicted a few too many acts of violence on his own family (wife and young son) for me to give him any benefit of any doubt. I also felt Lewin’s performance was all surface and didn’t give Denny enough emotional heft.

Director Meredith McDonough faces the challenge of having two guys talking mainly to the audience (occasionally to each other) as they stand or sit in chairs. It’s not a terribly dynamic stage, but McDonough keeps the pace up and creates the kind of tension that makes audiences gasp or otherwise make noises when certain plot details are revealed.

Speaking of plot details, there’s one involving a very bad call the officers make one rainy night when out on patrol. There’s a naked, weeping Vietnamese boy (maybe 13 or 14) making a commotion in a bad neighborhood. The cops can’t understand the hysterical boy, so when the boy’s “uncle” shows up – described as blond and surfer-like – the surrender the boy into his custody. I know the cops can’t be bothered because it’s integral to the plot (and something like this really did happen in Milwaukee), but why doesn’t anyone ask the cops what the hell they were thinking giving a Vietnamese boy who doesn’t speak English and is clearly distraught to a man who is so obviously not his uncle?

This whole episode become important in the downward spiral of the two cops, but there’s so much other stuff happening with prostitutes who keep babies in dresser drawers, seriously injured children, revenge violence and an illicit love affair that the cannibal killer really feels like Huff is larding it on. I guess that’s part of the fun, but it also makes A Steady Rain feel less like a serious drama and more like the aforementioned chocolate-covered old-fashioned donut.

A special note: on the night I saw A Steady Rain, Marin Theatre Company was experiencing some electrical problems. About 10 minutes into the play, the house lights came on, and shortly after that, the stage manager held the actors and explained there were technical difficulties being addressed. The actors joshed with the audience for a bit, then we sort of all agreed that we’d carry on with the house lights on “half.” It must have been so difficult for the actors to lose themselves in the play with all our shiny audience faces completely visible to them every moment. Rolston and Lewin were complete pros and handled it beautifully.

[bonus video]
A sneak peek at A Steady Rain from Marin Theatre Company:

Keith Huff’s A Steady Rain continues through Feb. 26 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $20-$55. Call 415-388-5208. or visit www.marintheatre.org.