A cocktail comedy with 'Spirit'
By Gretchen Giles
"Have another?" Charles asked, lifting the martini shaker temptingly. Ruth, who was prowling the room with the anxious energy of a hostess anticipating her guests, looked down at the stemmed glass in her hand and shook her head quickly. "No, thanks." She dropped lightly onto the couch and ran her long arm across its top. "Oh, darling, won't it be . . . "
Then the lights went out.
And, as though she hadn't noticed a thing, Ruth (Priscilla Sanford) continued to talk about the various minor entertainments that the evening had to offer. Charles (Allan Armstrong) agreed, and joked, and cajoled, and went on pouring bone-dry drinks. Guests arrived. Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Ron Bartels and Donna Pearce) entered, excited about an evening of supper and séance. They, too, didn't seem to notice that Charles and Ruth were sitting in the dark. The maid Edith (Amanda Shepard) lit candles, and soon the psychic centerpiece of the entertainment, Madame Arcati (Peggy Van Patten), bustled in, full of talk about late-night bicycling and evening specters.
Such is the professionalism of the cast of Main Street Theatre's latest offering, Blithe Spirit, that the lack of electricity (save emergency lights glaring down on the audience) fazed them not a bit. And because the actors didn't look up or make out-of-character, self-conscious references to their predicament, the audience sat quietly, mesmerized by the crackling wit of Noel Coward's script, delivered with an equal crackle of wit by director Jim dePriest's outstanding cast.
But, really, it all makes sense, because Blithe Spirit is a cocktail comedy that turns itself into a good-humored ghost story. And what better way to introduce a goofy spiritual world than by shutting off all the lights and hunkering down together over a Ouija board, calling out for the help of a petulant 7-year-old spirit guide named Daphne to contact the Other World?
And connect they do, to disastrously hilarious results, as Charles' first wife, Elvira (Terra Shelman), is brought forth from the astral plane and summarily trapped in Charles and Ruth's home, where she throws tantrums and plates and reminds Charles of exactly why she used to irritate him so very much. And, of course (surely you guessed/remembered this yourself), only Charles can see her, causing much uproarious confusion as he yells various invectives at the specter who cannily places herself just beyond Ruth's long-suffering shoulder so that it appears to all the world that he is really shouting at poor Ruth herself.
Without a serious or mean-spirited bone in its body (of text), Blithe Spirit is a marvelous showcase for the brittle, breakneck witticisms and refined buffoonery for which Coward is rightly celebrated, and the Main Street cast is more than up to the challenge--they can even do that dreaded-British-accent-thing with ease and realism.
Allan Armstrong creates a cleanly defined character as the suave Charles, a man so broken by the third act that dePriest places him downstage on a stool, holding his poor, disheveled head in his hands, Everyman's worst-nightmare-come-true hovering behind him as his two wives bitterly wrangle about everything that he does (and doesn't) do.
Priscilla Sanborn shows Ruth to be as intelligent as Charles. She gets a raw deal (read: death) and makes the best of it with equanimity. Terra Shelman is a shallow, bitchy little delight as Elvira--a woman who died while laughing at a radio show--and Peggy Van Patten plays Madame Arcati as deep and none too silly, someone you could probably buy a spirulina/tofu shake and aromatherapy advice from today.
Though overly long for this spirit to remain blithe through three acts and two intermissions, Blithe Spirit is in the end and at its best an F/X fest of the kind rarely seen in live theater. Things drop and fly and bound around with miraculous efficacy, wrought with a professional stagecraft that suspends our disbelief along with the pottery as it flies to and fro. DePriest and company have conjured a Spirit truly worth haunting.
Main Street Theatre presents Blithe Spirit Thursdays-Sundays through Feb 18. Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m. 104 North Main St., Sebastopol. $12. 823-0177.
From the Feb. 1-7, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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