Saturday, December 6, 2014

Blithe Spirit—Artists Rep—SW Portland

A Haunting Experience
This classic, dark comedy by Noel Coward is directed by Christopher Liam Moore.  It is plays at their space on SW Alder St. & 16th Ave. through December 28th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-241-1278.

This is considered Coward’s signature play although, in my opinion, not his best.  My own personal favorite of his is the little produced drama, Brief Encounter.  He is known for his witty lines and repartee between characters and stories involving the idle, upper-crust of society.  He, himself, hobnobbed with the elite of the theatre world.  The actress, Gertrude Lawrence, being a special friend of his, often performed in his plays with him.  A musical film about them, Star, with Julie Andrews in the lead and Daniel Massey as Coward, failed at the box office.  Coward was also an actor in his plays and some films, and a director, too.

Ghostly love affairs were not uncommon in the Arts, with such vehicles as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Ghost coming immediately to mind.  And a medium was involved in the last of those two films, too.  But somehow Coward’s play has outlasted them all, having been revived many times over the last 70 years.  And the enduring quality it has, I believe, is its eccentric characters.  My young companion, Madeleine, who was with me, is also in the Arts but has never seen or read the play.  Her opinion agrees with my assessment, that “the actors save the play.”

Overall, the story is a dark one with murder and attempted murder, dabbling in the paranormal arts, and rather loose dalliances among some, being part of the plot.  And, really, none of the characters are terribly heroic and, in some cases, actually dislikeable.  But, because of Coward’s wit, they do manage to entertain us.  And, as mentioned, the cast sends it over the top!

It seems that Charles (Michael Mendelson) is a writer, looking for new fodder for his book.  And, it just so happens, that a medium figures into the plot.  But, knowing little about the subject himself, he invites the local psychic, believed to be a charlatan, Madame Arcati (Vana O’Brien), over to his house to conduct a séance.  He also decides to invite his best friends, Dr. Bradman (Allen Nause) and his wife, (JoAnn Johnson) to join in on the fun.

His second wife, the ever-proper Ruth (Jill Van Velzer), prepares the house with their maid, Edith (Val Landrum), a rather scatter-brained, little thing.  And so the fun begins, or so they think.  Because Arcati is not only not a fake but she actually conjures up a spirit from the past, Charles’s first wife, Elviria (Sara Hennessy), although she’s not quite sure how she did it.  But it also turns out that only Charles can see and hear this imposing emanation, which will obviously lead to all sorts of merry mix-ups and mischievous mayhem.  To reveal anymore would be to spoil the “spirit” of the piece.

The play, itself, like many of his comedies, is rather self-indulgent and the sometimes contrived witticisms come not from the situations but from characters (writer) trying to be clever (like many sit-coms).  But when you have such a talented cast and director that can make it work, in spite of the shortcomings of the script, that is genius!

Companies often play the show as high-camp, hoping to get cheap laughs, or play it very droll, hoping to capture the flavor of the times.  But this production, under the leadership of Moore, has given this production a sort of alternate-reality approach.  Although still set in the same period of time, 1940’s London, and played with the same high-brow manners of that of that period, it rides the thin line between realism and out-and-out buffoonery.  It always has one foot firmly on the ground but the other in a type of ethereal space that might be inhabited by surrealistic artists or vaudevillian comics.

An example would be Mendelson’s Charles.  He has comic movements and double-takes that even Chaplin and Keaton would envy.  Brilliant…and most entertaining!  Being a top performer, anyway, I would expect his performances to be outstanding, but in his physically in this one, I think he has shot it out of the park and given us a definitive Charles.  O’Brien, too, is always a charmer and she was made to play this role.  Again, she too, has defined a more original way to play the character.  It is almost always played for camp and, as mentioned, cheap laughs.  But O’Brien keeps the character grounded which makes her amusing, but more as an eccentric than a butt of a joke and, thus, more human.  Bravo!

The cast is a who’s who in Portland theatre.  Hennessy and Van Velzer play the wives with droll perfection.  Nause and Johnson, both very familiar Portland actors and directors themselves, give these smaller roles a welcome boost because of their talent.  And Landrum, another favorite of local theatre, is a scream as Edith, pulling focus toward her every time she’s on.  Again, some great physical gestures and expressions that enliven the role.

Moore has done an exemplar job of creating and, possibly, defining this play.  He has done wonderful creative projects at OSF in Ashland and hopefully will not be a stranger here, either.  His masterful sense of timing and reimagining this play gives it new life!  The Scenic (Alan Schwanke), Costumes (Nancy Hills) and Lighting (Kristeen Willis Crosser) designs add immensely to the enjoyment of the show, without overpowering it.  All very well conceived.

The only cautionary note I might add is that in the program, there is a section about conducting a séance.  I think many psychologists will agree that this is not a game, as some people, especially young minds, are very susceptible to suggestion and can be adversely affected by such an activity.  I know it was entered in the guise of fun but…heed the warning.

I recommend this production.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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