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Blithe Spirit

[The following feature was written for the current Arvada Center program guide, artscentric.]

During the dark days of the battle for Britain in 1941, Noel Coward opened Blithe Spirit in the West End. Although there was some initial consternation over the subject matter—death and psychic phenomena—this quickly subsided as the good humor of the piece drove a new record run, with success following on Broadway as well. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called it his favorite play.

Steven Cole Hughes as Charles and Heather Lacy as Elvira
Steven Cole Hughes as Charles
and Heather Lacy as Elvira
Photo: P. Switzer, 2013
While the challenges of our times are, on the surface, quite different than the immediacy of life and death during persistent air raids, the threats we face from systemic failure—economically, climatically, etc.—are just as real and arguably more pressing. Luckily, Coward's prescription remains as effective as ever, as artistic producer and show director Rod Lansberry explains:

"I have to admit I've always been a Noel Coward fan. I'm fascinated by his style and his wit and Blithe Spirit is very much in this vein, despite the unconventional story line. And even though our own challenges are different, we still have a multitude of issues and worries. So, like the Brits at that time, having something in which we can absorb ourselves and have fun is important."

In addition to the Coward's universal sense of humor, the famed English actor, writer, and director possesses a sense of language in the tradition of Shakespeare, Shaw, and Wilde, with a delivery to match: razor-sharp and erudite.

Steven Cole Hughes as Charles and Kate Berry as Ruth
Steven Cole Hughes as Charles
and Kate Berry as Ruth
Photo: P. Switzer, 2013
Lansberry elaborates: "From beginning to end, there's such a wonderful arc in how the story progresses, from what you first perceive as a perfect marriage to a relationship that is suddenly called into question by paranormal events. The Brits are so good at looking at themselves, providing witty commentary, and laughing at themselves without being offended."

Despite the decline of British and European nobility for over three centuries, the remnants of their class-system are still strikingly evident in the opening scene, as the lady of the house, Ruth, gives last minute instructions to Edith, the maid, for this evening's dinner. The plans includes their long-time friends, the Brandmans, and a special guest—Madame Arcati, a medium—the entertainment, so to speak, who is also serving as a research subject for Ruth's husband Charles' new book.

(Left to right) Kate Berry as Ruth Condomine, Mark Rubald as Dr. George Bradman, Steven Cole Hughes as Charles Condomine, Leslie O'Carroll as Madame Arcati, and Alex Ryer as Mrs. Violet Bradman
(L to R) Kate Berry as Ruth Condomine,
Mark Rubald as Dr. George Bradman,
Steven Cole Hughes as Charles Condomine,
Leslie O'Carroll as Madame Arcati,
and Alex Ryer as Mrs. Violet Bradman
Photo: P. Switzer, 2013
Between Charles and Madame Arcati, Coward creates a compelling dynamic between science, so-called rational thought, and mysticism, the seemingly inexplicable. Whether or not we believe in forces that lie outside of our immediate consciousness makes little difference when strange things begin to happen. As quickly as you can say "séance," we have a farce on our hands, where a healthy portion of the usual zany door entrances and exits have been replaced by what Coward contemporary Aldous Huxley called "the doors of perception."

Once we, like the characters in the play, begin to suspend our disbelief, the juxtaposition of real and ethereal events creates a constant stream of mirth, as comments addressed to one realm cause misunderstandings in the other. On another level, the friction between Charles' past and present partners serves as a sharp metaphor for how our behavior changes over time, despite our repeated insistence during this same timeframe, that what we want has not changed. If we can laugh at that, we stand a good chance of getting through every daunting challenge we face.

The Arvada Center's production of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit runs through February 17th. For more information: 720-898-7200 or www.arvadacenter.org.

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