The flamboyant bon vivant Noël Coward excelled in many aspects of the performing arts, but he is best remembered today as a playwright who exposed the foibles of English society in several between-the-wars, comedy-of-manners plays. The last of these was “Blithe Spirit.” Many of us, having seen the movie and perhaps productions of the play as well, may wish to pass on seeing this war horse once again. That would be a mistake. City Lights has produced a sparkling rendition that hits the mark on every measure.
Probably the feature that distinguishes “Blithe Spirit” from most of Coward’s successful works is that it integrates fantasy into farce. Charles Condomine is a well-heeled author who wishes to learn more about the occult for a story that he’s writing. To do so, he hosts a small dinner party, with one of the guests being a medium, Madame Arcati. Although Charles dismisses notions of spirits and communicating with the dead, his deceased wife, Elvira, appears, but only to him. This induces the expected complications, especially in the friction created between Charles and his current, living wife, Ruth, in addition to the competition and bickering between the two wives with Charles as the go-between/translator.
The script and production are replete with clichés from English society of the period – the high-pitched, formal, lilting conversational modes, even between a couple in the privacy of their abode; sunset sherry poured from crystal decanters and martinis strained from chrome shakers; cocktail dresses and dinner jackets for meals at home; dotty maids and loopy fringe dwellers like Madame Arcati. George Psarras as Charles and Maria Marquis as Ruth are exquisite as the central couple, in all their class haughtiness and propriety. But before it’s all over, Charles will become frenetic, quickly pacing about, drinking more feverishly, and gesticulating wildly while dealing with warring wives. Ruth will become outraged about having to share her house and husband with an interloper that she can’t see or hear, especially when Charles has the audacity to warm to the situation. But Ruth has less to do, which is unfortunate, as Marquis is an excellent performer.
The company’s Artistic Director Lisa Mallette returns to the stage after several years absence and shows that she has lost nothing. As the balmy Madame Arcati, she flounces and flails, oblivious to convention and self-satisfied in her own wacky world. Mallette’s detailed facial gestures and body movement along with her affable silly certitude result in a well-sharpened and humorous portrayal.
The final critical character is of course the blithe spirit, Elvira, played by Georgia Ball. Although she may wish to leave this clumsy triangle, she does hold all the cards, and Ball plays them with smugness, yet teasing charm. She often prods Charles into making insulting responses that Ruth wrongly thinks are directed at her, which adds to the fun. Noteworthy is the fact nobody would suspect that the cool, controlled, mature interpretation of Elvira is given by a junior at San Jose State in her first professional performance.
Mark Anderson Phillips directs, and he ensures that all of the pieces work. Individual performances are vivid and the interactions timely with the humor landing as intended. The whole of the wide stage is used to great effect. All of the creative elements are rock solid. Resident Scenic Designer Ron Gasparinetti’s expansive set is period looking, beautiful, highly detailed (Karen S. Leonard, Props Designer), and functionally superb. The lighting by Edward Hunter rises, falls, and focuses to meet the characteristics of the goings-on, while attending to details such as adding lights to an otherwise non-functioning old radio. And Resident Sound Designer George Psarras (yes, he’s also the lead performer) has covered all of the bases from the tinny sound of a period recording of the song “Always” to the thumping of table legs on the floor during the seances. Kudos also to Pat Tyler for costumes and Richard Newton as dialect coach, as contributions in both of those arenas convey authenticity.
“Blithe Spirit,” written by Noël Coward, is produced by City Lights Theater Company and plays on its stage at 529 South 2nd Street, San Jose, CA through April 23, 2023.