Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Wetumpka Depot: "Blithe Spirit"

With Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit to end their 33rd Season, the Wetumpka Depot Players have mounted their second-in-a-row "improbable farce in three acts" (Michael Frayn's Noises Off was a hit this Summer), much to the delight of local audiences who might need a bit of levity to counterbalance the government shutdown, much as British theatre-goers needed relief in 1941 at the brink of World War II.

With his career in full swing between the Wars (he penned some 140 plays, hundreds of songs, films, and numerous cabaret acts over several decades), Coward often directed and starred in his glittering comedies of manners, many of which have a decidedly dark side underneath the urbane wit and sharp-edged dialogue that were his trademarks.

At the Depot, a few technical glitches and tentative dialogue sometimes slowed down the rapid pace demanded by farce, but with their first weekend under their belts, Director William Harper's multi-talented seven-character ensemble should be settling in to what promises to be a full-out laugh riot.

Charles Condomine [Lee Bridges] and his second wife Ruth [Cheryl Kiser] are hosting a dinner party whose guest of honor is Madame Arcati [Fiona Macleod], a bungling eccentric bohemian mystic who has been asked to conduct a seance for them, not aware that the Condomines and their guests, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman [Michael Dilaura and Sherida Black] are thorough skeptics, and that Charles has invited her merely to learn "a few tricks of the trade" for a book he is writing about the occult. They have all agreed to pretend to be interested believers so as not to upset Madame Arcati.

Before their guests arrive, the Condomines do their best to instruct their new maid Edith [Meghan Ducote] on the polite ways to serve, and their conversation over several martinis turns to Charles's first wife Elvira -- a beautiful young free-spirited woman (and the polar opposite of Ruth) -- who died seven years ago, but who is often on both their minds.

So, it should come as no surprise when Madame Arcati unexpectedly conjures the spirit of Elvira [Leanna Wallace] who only Charles can see or hear, and whose presence creates some of the most outlandishly comical misunderstandings. -- And a major problem: whether or not (and then how) to get rid of Elvira who shows no signs of leaving. -- The scenes with Charles and his two wives are skillfully managed, with Elvira outwitting Ruth and Ruth bewildered by Charles's apparent acceptance of Elvira's ghost into their lives. The women heap verbal abuse on one another, and Charles contributes his own barbs. It seems that neither marriage is complete bliss.

Mr. Harper has some fine veteran actors at his disposal, and some relative newcomers as well. Mr. Dilaura makes a solid acting debut as Dr. Bradman; as he is paired with Ms. Black's flighty Mrs. Bradman, they make a good pair of foils for the more sophisticated Condomines. -- Ms. Ducote's overly eager to please Edith, scurries about and makes more messes than are obvious from the start. Her part in  resolving the play's conflict is cleverly done.

Ms. Wallace makes a return to the Depot after "a 10 year hiatus", appearing here in the ghostly mode of a silver dress and wearing a "reverb" lavaliere microphone to make her voice seem other-worldly. And, for a long-departed wanderer, Elvira has some very worldly desires as she tries to win Charles back by devious means that backfire. (You'll have to see the play to understand.)

Mr. Bridges and Ms. Kiser thoroughly assume their roles; they appear so comfortable with one another, that we believe instantly that they are a married couple; and their completely natural speaking and movement complete the picture.

But it is Ms. Macleod's portrayal of Madame Arcati that is both Coward's focus and the production's most hilarious characterization. -- As she leaps about in preparation of going into a trance for the seance, or intensely intuits that "someone else is psychic in this house", or girlishly celebrates her "success" in conjuring Elvira (the seance scenes are outrageously funny), or refuses to be downhearted when numerous attempts to remove ghosts from the house are unsuccessful, Ms. Macleod uses her long experience in the theatre to communicate with a sly wink or a pause or a giggle or a posture what lesser actors only wish they could do.

The finely detailed set and period appropriate costumes and music complete the picture as we are transported back to the 1940s in the Depot's joyful production of Blithe Spirit.