Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Stage

‘Blithe Spirit’ at Stageworks comes loaded with laughs in the hands of a highly skilled cast

TAMPA

Blithe Spirit is the kind of play theater aficionados could argue about but probably don’t. Does theater have to reinterpret older works to be relevant, or can a well-done rendering of a classic stand on its own?

Stageworks Theatre closes its season with this Noel Coward play and it likely escapes such scrutiny because it’s so damned funny. This tale of a successful, self-satisfied author arranging a seance that inadvertently summons the ghost of his ex-wife, who then refuses to leave. It comes loaded with laughs. The humor only works in the hands of a highly skilled cast, which this show fortunately has.

Coward wrote the play, one he described as a "very gay, superficial comedy about a ghost," in 1941 in a mere six days. He was wrong about the "superficial" part; there’s a hidden depth to the script, which is one the more paradoxical things about it.

Director Staci Sabarsky has turned in a congruent production. A two-toned living room with lots of wood and conspicuously displayed classics on a bookshelf give off a fragrance of entrenched status. Costumes by Frank Chavez pop with color, from the tangerine gown of writer George Condomine’s second wife to the silvery, silken billows clothing his first.

Characters blend into that social center, where Condomine mixes martinis in a gold smoking jacket, or depart from it, most profoundly in the case of Madame Arcati, the medium whose gifts upend a marriage. Scott Swenson plays Condomine with admirable understatement, consistent with a man who believes he deserves nothing but the best.

Rosemary Orlando brings verve as Madame, as well as a contagious confidence that lifts the entire cast. She doesn’t just throw open a side door in a pre-seance ritual to breathe in the air — she is that fresh air: bold, eccentric and sure to cause trouble.

The subject matter remains in its time, starting with that seance, a hangover from late 19th-century spiritualism. The spirits themselves transcend time, as Lauren Buglioli demonstrates in the role of Elvira, George’s deceased first wife, a lovely mix of flash and unfiltered snark. The fact that only he can see her creates endless sight gags, heightened when an increasingly testy Elvira begins messing with people’s heads for the fun of it.

But the most eternal element in Blithe Spirit is its language, by a playwright with as keen an ear for dialogue as any. "I laughed at you steadily, from the altar to the grave," Elvira says during a fight scene with George, after accusing him of possessing "a certain seedy grandeur."

An even more vituperative exchange with current wife Ruth, played with an arch sensibility by a spot-on Betty-Jane Parks, points to an underlying truth, namely the problems ghosts cause, revealing flaws in current relationships and creating new ones.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.
Follow @torch437.

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