In many ways Noel Coward's life's work was being a blithe spirit -- and an intensely elegant one at that. An actor, writer and composer of songs, he was as much known for his suave persona as for his hilarious plays. He wrote Blithe Spirit in 1941, while German bombs fell on London. In its own way, it was an act of defiance. The ability to just get on with things, to put on the kettle and have a cup of tea in the face of loss and adversity was as much a matter of national pride for the wartime British as a quick trigger finger and a show of bellicosity might be to a contemporary Texan, imperturbability being the English version of toughness. And the upper classes not only got on with it, they did so with style and insouciance. Above all, Blithe Spirit is deliciously and deliriously witty. Beleaguered Londoners might also have found consolation in the play's comic focus on life beyond the grave.
As Blithe Spirit opens, Charles Condomine is working on a novel that features a medium who's a charlatan. He invites a local medium over so he can observe her holding a séance. Unfortunately for his book, Madam Arcati is dotty and befuddled, but she's the real thing. After some of the usual hocus-pocus -- table tapping, the summoning of a child guide from the other world, a trance and lots of cucumber sandwiches -- she actually manages to conjure up the ghost of Charles's former wife, Elvira.
Current wife Ruth is less than delighted to have her deceased predecessor flitting around the living room. Elvira, on the other hand, is a prankish spirit who thoroughly enjoys the panic and confusion she causes. What's to happen now? Must Charles choose between his dead and his living wife? Can the three of them arrange some kind of marriage à trois? Charles is by now remembering that Elvira was somewhat less charming in real life than in memory and also that what he feels for Ruth is pretty tame. Things get even more complicated when it turns out Elvira isn't quite the merry little pixie she appears to be. In the classic manner of the dead, she envies the living, and she's come back for what's hers: Charles.
Alarmed, Ruth and Charles unite and summon Madam Arcati for a spot of ghost-busting.
Using some of the Denver Center's most interesting actors, Nagle Jackson has directed a pleasurable and very funny evening of theater. One of the strongest elements is Annette Helde's assured, steely-eyed portrayal of Ruth: She makes her somewhat domineering but still human and sympathetic. Jamie Horton is brilliant when he's playing extreme or bluntly forceful characters, but I don't think he's quite as good at understatement, and droll understatement is what Charles is all about. Nonetheless, Horton holds his own. Randy Moore and Robin Moseley are solid as the Condomines' neighbors, and Moseley's character, torn between mockery and curiosity, is particularly lively Jacqueline Antaramian is a lovely Elvira, alternately languorous, sulky, petulant and seductive, although she's betrayed by her attempt at an English accent. For the first few minutes, I was disappointed in Kathleen M. Brady's Madam Arcati. I had in mind the inimitable Margaret Rutherford, who played the role in the film, and I wanted the character to be weirder. But after a while, I realized that Brady's performance was absolutely pitch perfect. Her Arcati is one of those unremarkable, middle-aged English countrywomen who seem as comfy and solid as a sofa until you notice the glint of pure lunacy flickering in their eyes. This is a woman who takes pains not to offend the fairy folk and who believes deeply in her ectoplasmic mission.
During the two intermissions, we heard the strains of appropriate Noel Coward songs: "I'll Follow My Secret Heart" and "I'll See You Again."
There was one significant flaw to the production: Several of the British accents failed to convince -- and convince they must, because Coward is one of the most English of playwrights. Kathleen M. Brady did well. Annette Helde always speaks with such conviction that you don't think about her stresses and intonations. Horton got the basic sounds right, but his speech and his character didn't quite mesh. And though she's a wonderful actress, Antaramian's pronunciations were downright distracting. Still, none of this is enough to ruin an utterly enchanting -- in all senses of the word -- evening. And the ending is brilliantly executed.
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