Arts & Events

Theater Review: Blythe Spirit at Actors' Ensemble

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday August 03, 2010 - 01:29:00 PM

"Nobody would ever call you the ethereal sort!" An arch gathering of English types, intent on having fun at a medium's expense—while one hopes to pick up a few quotable mannerisms for his book—prove the conduit from the beyond, as author Charles Condomine (Stanley Spenger) finds himself a flesh-and-blood bigamist when his late wife Elvira (Erin J. Hoffman) is summoned by Madame Arcati (Chris Macomber), making an unwitting menage-a-trois that seriously challenges his second marriage to Ruth (Shannon Veon Kase), in Noel Coward's preternaturally funny Blithe Spirit by Actors Ensemble of Berkeley at Live Oak Theater (1301 Shattuck at Berryman), Fridays and Saturdays at 8 through August 21. ($12-$15; 649-5999;

Not so serious a thing for the audience, which finds itself throughout in stitches. Blithe Spirit, along with Hay Fever and Private Lives, is not only among his favorite plays, but is a perennial for community theater, too. Director Hector Correa has his own slant on Coward's signature trick, conjuring humor from a stream of seemingly innocuous words issuing forth over some not-so-innocent conundrum. That slight shift of perspective is enough to refresh an old chestnut that's nonetheless a very funny one, in the right hands. 

And A. E. of Berkeley has cast the show just right: Stan Spenger shines—or rather shimmers—in his portrayal of a privileged, rather complaisant fellow, till he's double-henpecked in the flesh by both astral and terrestrial brides. Erin Hoffman, as Elvira, is either a girlishly charming ghost or spoiled brat apparition, with a deadly scheme up her sleeve to reunite with Charles. ("I may be an illusion, but I'm most definitely here!") Shannon Veon Kase, all business and sympathy as Ruth, till Elvira dances into the scene from the Other Side, delineates a meltdown very nicely. 

There's a kind of second threesome superimposed on the first, Charles caught in the middle of both: bicycling medium Madame Arcati, usually performed as pleasantly dotty, is rendered as imperious by Chris Macomber in quite a turn, feet planted firmly on the ground, though of which world it's never certain. At the other end of the scale, Edith, the eccentrically martial maid, portrayed by Jody Christian, who syncopates the action with her own delightfully nutty physical comedy, reveals a strange sensitivity that undercuts the upper crust's game-playing with life-after-death. Like many a murder mystery, but funnier, the question remains: Did the maid do it? 

John F. Hurst as Dr. Bradman and Jeanette Sarmiento as his wife Violet provide fine thespic balance as the "normal" Brits-Next-Door, invited into a seance—and a whole lot more. 

With Helen Slomowitz's always-illuminating costuming, and a fine set by Rose Anne Raphael perfectly lit by Alecks Rundell, Blithe Spirit proceeds to the strains of "Always"—"Don't play 'Always'!"—on the gramphone, with the audience roaring, unlikely to complain, "You won't let me have a hallucination!"