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Blithe Spirit -04/12/1999

By Noel Coward. Cast: Megan Alban, Tiffany Boeke, J.W. Morrissette, Danforth Comins, Nicole Mattis, Heather A. Saliny, Nanette Hennig. Director: Christine Sevec-Johnson. Scenic and Properties Designer: Mercedes L. Schaum-Alley. Costume Designer: James Berton Harris. Wig and Makeup Designer: Lisa Lillig. Lighting Designer: Daniel J. Anteau. Sound Designer: Shawn Parr.

University of Illinois Department of Theater

Through April 18. Colwell Playhouse, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University of Illinois. Box office: 333-6280.


Elegant, rude, clever, ruthless, charming, utterly and completely vain -- when you see a character who personifies all those things, the odds are good you're watching a Noel Coward play.

Noel Coward is above all about style, and "Blithe Spirit" is one of his most stylish plays. As usual, his wealthy, well-dressed, witty characters float through a drawing room comedy built on a bit of squabbling, a few surprises, ticklish romantic rivalries, and gallons of dry martinis.

"Blithe Spirit" does present a few new wrinkles on the Coward plan, however. Unlike the others, it features supernatural goings-on, with a very funny send-up of eccentric spiritualist Madame Arcati, and a beleaguered, more sympathetic hero, poor Charles Condomine, who is caught between his current wife and the mischievous ghost of his last.

Perhaps because it offers such fun roles (Madame Arcati is a particular favorite of mature actresses), "Blithe Spirit" is frequently revived. There's even a musical version, "High Spirits," orginally directed by Coward himself.

Still, it's no longer easy to recapture the kind of careless elegance necessary to pull off this kind of play. Actors especially find it hard to shed the method of the "in-the-moment" 90's for a sort of brittle irony and precious pretension.

Director Christine Sevec-Johnson has clearly worked hard on physical business with her actors -- as a whole, they move beautifully, whether it's to traipse languidly from one side of the drawing room to the other or to throw themselves into stylized lunges for comic effect.

As Elvira, the other-worldly other woman, Nanette Hennig is the best of the bunch at pretty poses and sophisticated swirls; she is reminiscent of such 30's film lovelies as Miriam Hopkins or Constance Bennett, who knew how to sell a frothy frock. Hennig makes Elvira smart and slinky, a petulant but enchanting ghostly presence.

She is well-matched by J. W. Morrissette as Charles, the husband in the middle. Morrissette submerges himself quite nicely into a sort of Herbert Marshall take on the role, and he does very well with all those dryly witty throwaway lines.

With Morrissette and Hennig playing perfectly off each other, Act II becomes as blithe as the title.

The comedy side of the equation gets good energy and commitment from both Heather A. Saliny, as Madame Arcati, and Megan Alban, as Edith, the hapless maid.

Saliny is a marvel with her character's crazy martial arts exercises and a lot of fun during the seance scenes as well. If she never really seems old enough to be the bluff and tweedy Madame Arcati, Saliny still communicates the comedy, and that's the important thing.

Tiffany Boeke is properly flinty as second wife Ruth, described by her husband as a woman of granite, while Nicole Mattis and especially Danforth Comins add a sense of smooth sophistication as dinner guests who get swept into the seance.

Mercedes L. Schaum-Alley's set and properties design is simply gorgeous, all grace and greenery, with nifty special effects that worked like a charm even on opening night. The second act tricks are particularly delightful.

James Berton Harris contributes equally charming costumes, with just the right amount of glamor to bring the milieu alive.

In general, this "Blithe Spirit" is lovely to look at and as dryly amusing as Charles Condomine's martinis.

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