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Blithe Spirit

If your husband's late first wife came to live in the same house with you, do you suppose you would be able to look on the bright side?— Ruth

Theatricum Botanicum caps its supernatural season (The Tempest, Midsummer Night's Dream, Dracula) with an out-of-this-world production of Noel Coward's 1941 comedy Blithe Spirit. Written in five days during World War II, it was produced six weeks later and ran for four and a half years. Considered a classic and Coward's best plotted and most inventive comedy, it's confidently revived for other reasons, some of them not readily apparent.

Basically, it's the emotional tug of war between a man, his fascination with his sexually seductive first wife Elvira, his reliance on his Mommy Dearest second wife Ruth and his ultimate independence as he manages to break these emotional bonds. It's the type of sophisticated period comedy that Theatricum Botanicum knows how to put together.

Under the sly visual direction of Heidi Helen Davis, the play opens with the drawing-room complacency of Charles Condomine (Mark Bramhall) and second wife Ruth (Melora Marshall) as they sip Martinis in their elegant drawing room and plan the manipulation of a medium, Madame Arcati (Ellen Geer). She's been invited to dinner and a séance, so that Charles may raid her techniques for his upcoming novel, The Unseen, a title Ruth breathily regards as wonderful. You're just aching to see the Condomines punctured and put down, and they are.

Spastc maid-in-training Edith fumbles her way through cocktails, as Madame Arcati responds to Charles' drink invitation with "If it's a Martini, yes. If it's a concoction, no.", a phrase used early and often by Martini aficionados.

Madame Arcati is one of Coward's rarest comic characters. Created on stage and in the film by Margaret Rutherford, she was also played by Tammy Grimes and, in tonight's production, given the common sense air of an eccentric totally devoted to the madness of art by Ellen Geer. A true believer, this Madame Arcati wears a motherly coronet of grey braids. Geer makes her a member of the ensemble, not a star turn which blends well with the excellent cast.

Abby Craden is a gorgeous eerie Elvira in white Kabuki make-up, who makes ectoplasm sexy as she floats, dips and dives around the stage, terrorizing the mere mortals. Melora Marshall's Ruth is an elegant worldly woman in designer dresses who doesn't mind her marriage being past its "first fine careless rapture" as long as she rules the roost. The advent of Elvira is seriously disorienting and Marshall finely traces Ruth's disintegration and desperate battle for control .even into the afterlife.

Mark Bramhall has the tricky task of making stuffy uptight Charles interesting and it takes an actor with his flair for comedy, both physical and vocal, to really hold his own with three dominant ladies. Bramhall comes through, evolving Charles from a smug novelist content to take the path of least resistance mapped by Ruth until Elvira's return reunites the sexual and passive sides of his personality into a totally new take-charge man, just as much a marvelous manifestation as his ghostly wives, and don't think Coward didn't know it.

Quiet Dr. Bradman (Tim Halligan) is complemented by a delightfully dippy Danielle O'Loughlin who brings her cameo role to exuberant life. Davis vividly depicts the "humiliating hocus-pocus" that Madame Arcati haplessly evokes to exorcise the ghosts and makes the final fight scene between Charles and Elvira just as brilliant as the one Coward created in Private Lives.

Production credits are not listed but both set and lighting are excellent. All the costumes are good and many of Ruth's costumes look genuine vintage. Blithe Spirit, though period, is never dated, because its supernatural and marital interchanges are timeless and because Noel Coward, when done as right as he is here, continues to throw a "marvelous party"


Playwright: Noel Coward
Director: Heidi Helen Davis
Cast: Mark Bramhall (Charles), Ruth (Melora Marshall), Madame Arcati (Ellen Geer), Elvira (Abby Craden), Dr. Bradman (Tim Halligan), Mrs. Bradman (Daneille O'Loughlin), Edith (Crystal Sershen)
Running Time: Two and a half hours, no intermission
Running Dates: June 30-September 29, 2007
Where: Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Cyn Blvd, Topanga, Reservations: (310) 455-3723
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on August 18.
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