Rosina Reynolds is far from a novice when it comes to working on plays by the famously clever writer, Noel Coward. In recent years, she has directed a production of Coward’s Fallen Angels at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, and has starred in interpretations of his comedy Hay Fever, and the dark drama, The Vortex, at the Cygnet Theatre.
Her production of the supernatural comedy, Blithe Spirit, sometimes labeled as “an improbable farce,” at the North Coast Rep, is both a visually beautiful and very funny staging.
At a house in the 1940’s, wealthy author Charles Condomine (J. Todd Adams) lives a happy life with his second wife Ruth (Joanna Strapp). Charles wants his new book to be a spooky one about the occult and, in hopes of inspiration, he invites the upbeat and passionate medium Madame Arcati (Susan Denaker) to see if she can actually communicate with the dead.
During a séance, Arcati summons the spirit of his deceased first wife, Elvira (Teagan Rose), and Charles isn’t really prepared for that. Making matters more complicated is the fact that only Charles can see the ghost.
Coward takes subject matter that could, in other hands, be creepy, and instead presents everything with a light touch, including some of the play’s strangest plot twists and developments.
Reynolds presents a house that does not seem the kind of environment where sinister forces would lurk, but she slowly brings in paranormal elements that begin to affect Charles’ existence.
Not too long after Arcati introduces herself and visits Charles’ house, the crewmembers begin to play into the strange events that start to take place. Matt Novotny’s lighting, which creates an almost gothic atmosphere, and the sounds of sinister knocks on Aaron Rumley’s audio, add a bit of tension to the séance scene, while Rumley’s use of Irving Berlin’s classic song, “Always,” is surprisingly crucial to the tale.
Marty Burnett’s set is just as important to visually representing the unusual situations that occur. Doors that mysteriously open provide a foretaste of the unique effects that begin to take place onstage.
More important than the visual effects, however, is Coward’s smart and humorous dialogue, and the ensemble consists of several hilarious comic performers, including Adams who, as Charles, goes from self-assured to irritated and helpless.
If Charles is the protagonist, it’s the women who are in control of the plot. Denaker (who really looks the part of a medium, thanks to Elisa Benzoni’s costume), Strapp, Rose and Michelle Marie Trester playing the nervous and proper maid Edith, portray women who end up contributing more to the narrative than Charles ever does.
All four actresses’ comedic chops are in synch through each of the three acts.
This version of Blithe Spirit might feature a very gifted cast and crew, yet the actual material itself can feel overly long in spots. The production, including the intermission, is nearly three hours, which does seem a bit excessive.
Among the scenes that do feel somewhat lengthy include those when Arcati talks about her profession and when Charles desperately tries to prove to Ruth that the spirit of Elvira is in their home.
Other productions have shortened the script to make the events flow faster for a modern audience. However, I still think Reynolds made the right choice to retain as much of the material as possible. I generally prefer directors to present the material as it was originally intended, rather than making cuts that detract from the story.
Coward’s trademark wit and Reynolds’ surefire direction continue to make for an enjoyable combination. You’ll either be inspired to want to meet a medium, or come away determined to avoid them.