FLORIDA SCHOOL OF THE ARTS THEATRE REVIEW
The Florida School of the Arts unearthed another theatrical treasure of yesteryear with the revival of Noel Coward’s comedy/farce “Blithe Spirit.” The show ran for four performances during October 1- 4, 2015 at the college’s campus in Palatka, Florida.
This was the third trip the Dual Critics have made to Palatka to see a FloArts production, and we were once again delighted with the professionalism of the performance. “Blithe Spirit” has not been done in North Florida for many years; the last production we recall was at Theatre Jacksonville over twenty-five years ago.
The play has an interesting history. Noel Coward wanted to write a comedy that would take British theatre goers away from the devastating experiences of World War II. Germany’s bombing of British civilians during the Blitz, which began in London in September, 1940, was extended to other major British cities and continued through May of the following year. More than one million London homes were destroyed or damaged, and more than forty thousand civilians were killed, almost half of them in London.
The playwright penned the script during a six-day period just prior to the end of the Blitz, and it opened in London shortly afterward. The play ran for a remarkable 1,997 performances, moved to Broadway for 657 performances, and has since been adapted for film, television, radio, and the musical stage. It has been revived in London a number of times, most recently in 2014, with the 89-year-old Angela Lansbury receiving rave reviews as Madame Arcati.
The play is set in Kent, England, in the 1930s. The plot revolves around Charles, a wealthy novelist, and Ruth, his second wife. His first wife, Elvira, died several years earlier. Charles is planning to write a novel about the occult, and to conduct research, has invited Madame Arcati, a well-known medium, to his home to conduct a séance. Charles and Ruth have invited two friends, Dr. Bradman (Michael Baker) and his wife Viola (Emma Kriausky), to join them for the evening.
Charles and his guests had expected to expose Madame Arcati as a fraud, but unfortunately, the sitting does not go as planned: the flamboyant medium accidently calls up the spirit of Charles’ dead wife. While Charles (and the audience members) can see and hear her, her presence is not apparent to the other participants.
Charles is able to convince Ruth that Elvira is present, even though unseen; Ruth then becomes both angry and jealous. When the manifestation of this ghost of a deceased wife begins making plans to bring about the death of Charles so he can join her in the afterlife, the on-stage action gets heated. No spoilers here, as you will have the opportunity to see the play in the future; Jacksonville’s Alhambra Theatre is planning to stage it in May, 2016. Additionally, the 1945 film, with Rex Harrison, is available on cable from time to time.
Director Patricia Crotty had handsomely cast this well-tooled revival, which makes the most of every plot twist. Under her excellent direction, the actors were strong and their performances engaging.Pascale Molina was Edith, the very funny but not overly bright maid. Kassidy Canova, seen previously in “Les Misérables,” gave an inspired performance in the challenging role of Ruth, who has frequent changes in her emotional state as she is caught up in Elvira’s wiles. Marc Anthony Toro played the handsome confident Charles, who has a persuasive way of speaking, but finds himself with unanticipated obstacles to his domestic happiness after engaging the assistance of Madame Arcati. We recall seeing Mr. Toro in the FloArts production of “Night of the Iguana,” and in “Beyond Therapy” at St. Augustine’s Limelight Theatre.
The role that brought the most laughs was that of the self-assured bicycle-riding Madame Arcati, played by Marielle Erskine, who appeared previously in “Night of the Iguana.” She is remarkably believable as the medium, and remains amusingly animated throughout as she implores spirits to respond, orders people about, screams, yells, enters trance states, and attempts to banish Elvira to the beyond.
Emma Stimpson was the sensual Elvira, a lovely but somewhat petulant ghost, with otherworldly makeup and a spectacular dress in a metallic hue.
The staging was solid and sure down to the last detail, especially the special effects. We saw, among other things, a ghost floating on the patio outside, books falling from shelves, and objects flying out of place. The British accents of the entire cast were professionally polished.
The spacious living room of the British home where the action took place was perfectly captured by Robert W. O’Leary’s set for this play, with luxurious furnishings and artworks, unexpectedly embellished with Art Nouveau touches. A lovely view of surrounding trees through screened double doors provided the portal for the arrival of spirits. The dramatic lighting design by Ashlee Philpott greatly enhanced the experience, as did the sound design by W. Chris Gaston.
It was obvious a great deal of time was devoted to the period costumes by Costume Designer Jade Campbell and Costume Shop Manager Tracy Floyd. The all-important job of Stage Manager was in the hands of Todd Allen, assisted by Kylee Risdon.
We were joined for a great evening of theatre by a large audience whose members were, like us, delighted and entertained by this superb production.
“Blithe Spirit” is entered in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF), a national theatre program designed to identify and promote quality in college-level productions. The program offers opportunities for selected students and faculty to participate in KCACTF programs at both regional and national levels.
Future planned productions for FloArts include “Simply Sondheim,” beginning October 29, 2015 and the “The Addams Family,” beginning February 25, 2016. See floarts.org for additional information.