'Blithe Spirit' gets sitcom treatment

April 30, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Blithe Spirit" is an atypical Noel Coward comedy in two respects. It's highly plotted and its characters are middle -- instead of upper -- class.

This may explain why director Kyle Donnelly has brought a kind of stylish sitcom sensibility to Arena Stage's production of this play about a happily married novelist whose affections are suddenly alienated by the appearance of the ghost of his deceased first wife.

The sitcom feeling begins with bumping the time period up from the 1940s, when the play was written, to the 1950s, when TV sitcoms came into their own. It is reinforced with music and sound effects -- designed by Timothy Thompson -- ranging from "Bewitched"-style theme music to ominous horror movie chords. And, in true sitcom fashion, some of the laughs are extracted in a heavy-handed manner, particularly on the part of Sarah Marshall as the slow-witted, but extremely fast-moving, maid.

The result lends a cartoony, camp aura to a play that, even though it deals with the supernatural, still needs to elicit genuine feelings if it is to be truly effective.

At the same time, there are many ways in which the production excels, including its overall color scheme and set design. Set designer Thomas Lynch has created a middle class living room whose obliquely angled walls and forced perspective immediately notify the audience that something is wrong in this house.

And, together with costume designer Paul Tazewell, Lynch sticks to a blue-gray palette that washes over everything, including the blue-gray flowers on the blue-gray coffee table -- everything, that is, except the wardrobe of the "blithe spirit" herself.

As ghostly Elvira, the deceased first wife of writer Charles Condomine, Ellen Karas is decked out in fire-engine red satin. There's nothing subtle about her, from her plunging neckline to her inspired entrance -- levitating behind the sofa, so that our first provocative glimpse is of her high-heeled shoe, then her shapely leg. Flamboyant and sexy in every respect, she contrasts not only with Charles' restrained, conservative second wife, played with prim indignation by Pamela Nyberg, but also with Charles himself, played by Terrence Caza as a rather staid, middle-aged, suburban husband.

Nor is the ghost's brightly colored get-up the production's only instance of going against type. As Madame Arcati, the psychic who summons Elvira's spirit, Tana Hicken isn't one of those eccentric ladies who waft about in caftans and turbans (except, that is, when she dons her hooded cloak to conduct a seance). Mostly, she's a tweedy product of the English countryside, right down to her sensible shoes. Thrusting her fist to punctuate such exclamations as "I'm fit as a fiddle!" or "Good work!", she has the gung-ho attitude of a Barbara Woodhouse -- one whose field of expertise simply happens to be spirits, instead of dogs.

Madame Arcati treats her work with the utmost seriousness, but like most of her colleagues in this production, even she occasionally gives in to sheer silliness. Though the overall effect evokes lots of laughs, it ultimately does so at the expense of the gentle, touching quality that has helped this marital ghost story remain a favorite for more than a half century.

Pub Date: 4/30/96

'Blithe Spirit'

Where: Arena Stage, 6th Street and Maine Avenue, S.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through June 9

Tickets: $21-$42

Call: (202) 488-3300

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