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Spooky delights and comic relief in `Blithe Spirit'

The production, at the Theatricum Botanicum, pokes fun at marriage and the spiritual world.

July 04, 2007|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

The characters in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" do relish a dry martini. Charles Condomine, the novelist-protagonist of the piece, prepares the evening's libations with the intensity of an ancient alchemist. Savoring the result, his second wife, Ruth, gives an ecstatic shudder. "Dry as a bone," she pronounces.

That's a thematic manifesto if ever there was one. Written in 1941, reportedly in five days, "Spirit" was an extraordinary outpouring of comic genius that proved a tonic for war-torn Britain. Amazingly, Coward's arch treatment of death during such a blood-soaked period engendered a fair amount of controversy when first produced -- but early critics were soon silenced by the play's enormous popularity.

There's an obvious pun to be derived from Charles' slavish attention to the evening's liquid spirits. When Madame Arcati, Coward's famously eccentric psychic character, arrives at the Condomine residence to conduct a seance, she unleashes the ghostly presence of Elvira, Charles' deceased first wife, a mischievous genie who, once uncorked, shows no inclination to return to the "other side."

In the play's present incarnation -- draw another pun if you will -- director Heidi Helen Davis taps into Coward's frothy dryness to heady effect, despite a few minor poltergeists on opening night in the form of late entrances and fluffed lines.

Setting Coward's drawing room comedy against the commodious outdoor backdrop of the Theatricum Botanicum may seem a stretch, but when the ghostly Elvira first wafts down the hillside, to genuinely spooky effect, you'll willfully suspend your disbelief.

Poor Charles (Mark Bramhall). Underneath his suavity lurks festering resentment. And why shouldn't Charles be irritable? "Hag-ridden" since boyhood, he has settled into tame domesticity with his domineering second wife Ruth (Melora Marshall). When Madame Arcati (Ellen Geer) conjures up Elvira (Abby Craden), Charles suffers a spiritual crisis, quite literally. But there's a light at the end of this tunnel -- if only he can persuade Elvira to go toward it.

Handsomely attired in Cynthia Herteg's period costumes, the cast -- which includes Tim Halligan, Danielle O'Loughlin and Crystal Sershen -- displays the easeful sophistication requisite to any Coward comedy. Bramhall tempers Charles' acerbity with a querulous edge, while Craden's amusingly wispy Elvira soon shows the adamantine will beneath her girlish pout.

Geer's Madame Arcati has a bluff heartiness at comical odds with her character's otherworldly profession. And as Ruth, Marshall is a delight, clipping off her acid retorts as if her stiff upper lip were spring-loaded.


`Blithe Spirit'

Where: Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga

When: See for schedule

Ends: Sept. 23

Price: $20 to $25

Contact: (310) 455-3723

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

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