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Theater conjures up enchanting 'spirit'

Imagine if a deceased former lover rose from the dead to disrupt your marriage. Would your preference be for her to thrash about the house and wreak havoc? Or would a ghoulish presence that serves more to annoy than frighten be a more suitable option?

For Noel Coward, the English playwright known for his merciless wit and flamboyant lifestyle, the latter seems a better set-up for comedy. Nearly 70 years after its debut in London's West End, Coward's "Blithe Spirit," currently playing with a spectacular cast at A Noise Within, is still a hilarious farce on the impossible possibilities of a ghostly ex haunting the man who left her at the grave.

The ghost in question is Elvira, the vivacious first wife of writer Charles Condomine (Scott Lowell). Charles and his current wife Ruth (Jill Van Velzer) take part in a seance at their house. The seance is mostly done for mockery, and Charles expects nothing more than to share a few laughs with his wife and friends, while gathering some great material for his latest book.

However, Madame Arcati (Jane Macfie), the medium who orchestrates the seance, proves to be far more effective than suspected and conjures up Elvira from the dead. It's interesting to note that Macfie previously appeared as Ruth in the Grove Theater Center's production of "Blithe Spirit." But after seeing her lively portrayal as the eccentric clairvoyant, it's hard to imagine her in any other role, especially after spouting hilarious one-liners like, "red meat has an odd effect on me, but either way I'll risk it."

At its core, "Blithe Spirit" is about a forgotten lover's revenge on her unrepentant husband and his new wife. "What do you want," a fed-up Charles asks Elvira, shortly after she's summoned. "All I want is to be alone with you," she answers. Abby Craden's Elvira proves to be far more desirable, in her free-spirited ways, than Ruth, played with poise by Jill Van Velzer. Attired in white silk, Elvira dances across the stage with purpose, and although Charles is initially annoyed, he soon becomes entranced by her seductive ways. At one point, Charles even tells Ruth, "Perhaps we can get a little fun out of it."

Coming from Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre, Lowell skillfully shifted between a thoughtful and loving husband to a wide-eyed lunatic maddened by hallucinations. At first, Lowell's charm and persuasion as Charles is interrupted by the fact that Elvira will do everything in her power to destroy him. But by the end, Lowell's Charles is so tired from having to constantly explain himself that we have to root for him. As the empathetic Charles, Lowell never faltered.

Scene designer Kurt Boetcher does a masterful job of capturing the posh extravagances of the Depression-era English elite. His living room is alive with Persian carpets, varnished bookshelves and a spectacular glass chandelier. There's even a gramophone, which was a luxury even for the wealthy back in those days. But alas, one must remember this is a Coward play. And given the extravagant lifestyle the playwright lived, why should his characters be deprived of anything?

James Famera is a freelance arts critic based in Los Angeles.

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Infobox:

What: "Blithe Spirit" by Noel Coward

When: Plays in repertory through Dec. 17

Where: A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale

Tickets: $32 to $46, with group discounts available.

Contact: http://www.ANoiseWithin.org, or call (818) 240-0910, Ext. 1.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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