Picture this: You're a jowly British crime novelist with a prim, no-nonsense, somewhat domineering wife of five years. You're happily married and comfortably situated in a house with big vestibules and Renoir paintings on the walls. But you harbor pangs of longing for your first wife, now seven years dead. The pain isn't sharp enough to count as actual despondency or grief. But it does make you entertain notions of tea leaves and séances and crystal balls. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad to conjure the ex back, if only for one fleeting reunion. Who you gonna call?
If your name is Charles Condomine, then you'll call an eccentric medium who promises to summon ghosts of marriages past. Thus begins Blithe Spirit, a 1941 play by Noël Coward, now enjoying a month-long resurrection under the auspices of Actors Ensemble of Berkeley. Directed by Hector Correa, this comedy of manners stars a twinkly Stanley Spenger as Charles — writer, complainer, marriage-complicator, and resident fop. Shannon Veon Kase is his current wife Ruth, a sweet redhead who just barely puts up with her husband's odd whims and mercurial temperament. Erin J. Hoffman is the tall, willowy, dead wife Elvira. And Chris Macomber is the show's real star, as a psychic with fishy credentials.
Madame Arcati is the type of medium you would expect to find in Berkeley. She commutes by bicycle. She wears gaudy, Christmas-tree beads and shawls that might have been ripped from someone's carpet. She has clunky black shoes and a turban. She carries Tarot cards and various other accoutrements. She forages at the Condomine's drawing room table, scooping up the last dregs of cucumber sandwiches. Her cheeks look like they were colored with maroon crayon. When summoning up dead spirits, Madame Arcati flails about the room, singing in a frayed contralto and taking up as much space as possible. "Oh don't worry, Mrs. Condomine," she assures a frazzled Ruth, who suggests removing all the breakable stuff from the mantle. "I have my own way of dealing with — the elements."
Seldom does such a vibrant character grace a small stage, even in seen-it-all Berkeley. Madame Arcati is easily the best kook to emerge from Actors Ensemble in several seasons. And she's but one of many contributions to the knockout success of this production. By all accounts, the 53-year-old, nonprofessional company took a big risk by tackling Coward. His plays are challenging to produce and easy to screw up. They require actors with believable British accents, a knack for dialogue, and impeccable comic timing. A lot of the humor rests in the articulation of lines (e.g., Ruth upbraiding Charles: "Just because you've been dominated by women doesn't mean you know everything about them.") and the intonation of certain words (e.g., Madame Arcati: "I do hope I haven't gone and — released something"). Above all, the actors have to convey volumes in small ways.
Yet, whoever cast this Blithe Spirit did a capital job. Spenger is not quite the Charles Condomine that an avid Coward fan might envision. He seems a bit too lithe, probably too young, and perhaps too amiable. He has a permanent twinkle in his eye, which wouldn't become a frowsy old ruiner of marriages. Nonetheless, Spenger handles Coward's script fabulously, making the most of his naturally forlorn appearance. He transforms Charles Condomine from an ornery novelist to a small, confused puppy who can't understand why his wives keep coming back to victimize him. Meanwhile, the women in this play are the sort you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. Elvira is tall enough to tower over her former husband, with arms outstretched like tree branches. Ruth is small and pert, but also conniving, jealous, and quick to scold. Even Madame Arcati induces fear, with her odd locutions and odder apparel. You can tell, just by watching her masticate a cucumber sandwich, that there's evil lurking within.
Strong acting and believable accent rendering aren't the only surprise in this Blithe Spirit. Even grander are the set pieces. Alongside the Renoir ballerina paintings lie fancy candlesticks, little porcelain doodads, a fireplace, wilted ferns, French doors leading to a fine English garden (painted on the wall — but who's counting?), and a French art nouveau poster advertising Vermouth (fitting, since the characters sip dry martinis throughout). A maid (Jody Christian) skitters about the drawing room, polishing silver and yelling in Cockney. There's even an old Victrola in the corner, where characters play 1940s-era gramophones. The carefully crafted jazz soundtrack includes tunes like "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and "A Porter's Love Song to a Chambermaid."
Taken together, these ballads create visions of co-dependency and domestic bliss — stuff that Coward tries to undermine in all of his comedies. Perhaps the best placed is "A Porter's Love Song," an old Fats Waller classic that plays right around the time Charles' second marriage is starting to unravel. Put in this context, the lyrics seem pointed and cruel: I will be your dishpan/If you'll be my dish/We'll meet after meals, dear/What more could you wish?