In Blithe Spirit, the spirit of make-believe and enchantment that California Shakespeare Theater achieved in The Tempest with Prospero's magic spells, and George C. Wolfe's Spunk with its three narrated stories, manifests again, albeit in an unlikely setting: an affluent household in 1930s England where bouquets are fastidiously arranged, clocks are admonished for not ringing more discreetly, and every deviation from fizzy repartee on anodyne subjects is derided as disgusting, vulgar, or worthy of a trip to the vicar.
But if Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit has one foot, or maybe just a toe, dipped in realism, the comedy is also flying high in fantasy. Even its "realistic" aspects feel unreal, probably for both for Coward's wartime audience (the play premiered in 1941) or spectators today. Charles (Anthony Fusco) is a novelist, yet he and his wife, Ruth (René Augesen), live in sumptuous isolation from problems of substance; their biggest concern is discouraging their skittish maid, Edith (Rebekah Brockman), "from being quite so fleet of foot." A single evening's imbibing might consist of martinis, burgundy, and sherry — several of each for each character — yet the flow of booze never stems the flow of aphorisims or ruptures the characters' jolly performance of their social roles. At least, not until Madame Arcati (Domenique Lozano) unleashes her occult powers.
As research for his latest novel, Charles has invited the eccentric medium over for dinner, along with friends Doctor and Mrs. Bradman (Kevin Rolston and Melissa Smith). Supposedly, Charles wants only to learn some psychic jargon, like "protoplasmic manifestation," and some "tricks of the trade," such as what breathing exercises to employ or what interpretative dance to perform to best self-induce a trance. But Madame Arcati's séance is more successful than he bargained for. Not only does the skeptical group make contact with the supernatural; the supernatural comes to stay, in the form of Charles' dead first wife, Elvira (Jessica Kitchens), whom only Charles can see or hear.
Under the direction of Mark Rucker, the cast packs Coward's banter with punch. Fusco and Augesen, longtime collaborators at A.C.T., have played husband and wife numerous times before and have a deep understanding of one another's comic timing. Together they paint a portrait of a couple whose enjoyment of one another's ripostes is tinged by deeper conflicts.
The performances by Lozano, Smith, and Brockman are the production's real treats. Smith makes an underwritten part into a memorable one, her wide eyes and ever-open mouth a perfect comic picture of a woman who must prepackage her speech only to still be silenced by her society. Brockman also makes much of elastic facial features, stealing the last scene of the play with her cartoonish contortions. And Lozano finds in Arcati the kind of weirdo who refuses to acknowledge how strange she looks scurrying about the stage and who wouldn't care in the least if you told her. Her real passion is her craft, which Lozano practices with a zeal at once spiritual and erotic.
Attired in macramé berets, plastic beads, and sheer, flowing shawls — much credit to Katherine Roth's splendid costume design — Arcati couldn't look more different from the other women in their Victorian waistlines, a encapsulation of colliding 19th- and 20th-century norms. Roth's splashes of color work wonders against the bronzes of Annie Smart's set, which is period-faithful down to every lampshade crease, until it folds out to the sky: realism taking flight into fancy.
Like all the best fairy tales, Blithe Spirit is limned in foreboding. It's escapist, yet it exposes cracks in the foundation of our contentment. With but one visit from the beyond, a seemingly happy married milquetoast becomes a he-man woman-hater. The genius of Noel Coward — and this production — is to make us sympathize with him and laugh all along the descent.