The Naples Players is launching a production of the timeless comedy “Blithe Spirit”
In the 1700s, British philosopher David Hume observed that to be human is to make assumptions about the future based on our past experiences. And so it is that often our current relationships are haunted by a previous marriage, a failed romance, an unrequited love. In “Blithe Spirit,” immortal playwright Noel Coward makes this metaphorical construct his protagonist’s reality by bringing his deceased first wife back from beyond the grave.
It happens at a séance organized by fictional crime novelist Charles Condomine. To overcome a bout of writer’s block, he decides to inject the occult into his current project. So he invites a local medium by the name of Madame Arcati to his home for a séance. It’s a parlor trick of sorts intended not just as research, but to add a bit of highbrow humor to an evening with another couple, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman.
“When she comes over, they think this is going to be a joke and Dr. Bradman is especially, like, ‘oh yeah, let’s see,’” says Naples Players Assistant Artistic Director Jessica Walck, who plays Charles’ wife, Ruth. “He’s a doctor and it’s science versus the supernatural. So, he has these great remarks, these snarky comments where he makes these side jokes or these little flippant jokes which upsets Madame Arcati, which is kind of funny and that makes everyone else in the room kind of laugh because we’re all kind of skeptics. He actually gets some of the best one-liners in the show.”
If you’re doing that David Hume thing and conjuring up images of Oda Mae Brown from the film “Ghost,” stop! Madame Arcati is an out-and-out fraud. Except that in this instance, she does inexplicably manage to bring back Charles’ first wife, Elvira. Gorgeous, eccentric, and ever the life of the party, Elvira served in life as Charles’ muse, often giving him the storylines that made his novels so successful.
“This is just her second show,” remarks Canalese. “She is such an interesting physical actor. She’s hilariously funny. She does stuff that’s just the quirkiest little things that come out. I call her my little sprite because she literally is like this little kind of spiritual sprite that comes in and just kind of floats around the stage being hilarious.”
At this point, you’re doing that David Hume thing again and drawing comparisons to the recent Edward Hall film adaptation of “Blithe Spirit.” If so, stop! The reason the show works as a stage production and not so much as a film is because the audience can see Elvira. This is where the comedy comes from.
“The fun with this show is that the audience is in on the joke,” Jessica Walck elaborates. “When Elvira comes in and sees Charles and they’re having their moment, Ruth can’t see her. Nobody can see her but Charles, but the audience can see her. The audience understands why it’s funny because they’re experiencing what Charles is experiencing and that is kind of the physical humor that’s going on and the psychological humor that’s happening… The other characters on the stage think that Charles is going nuts, but you actually see who he is talking to and what’s really happening. And so that relationship between the audience and the actors and what’s happening is what creates that electricity and that humor within the theater.”
“Blithe Spirit” also derives much of its humor from Ruth Condomine’s reaction to her husband’s infatuation with the spirit of his dead wife, who is determined to resume her role as his muse and guiding literary light forever more. Ruth is Elvira’s polar opposite. Where Elvira is a free spirit, Ruth is proper, stuffy, and super-pragmatic. It’s not a fair fight. After all, how do you compete with an idealized supernatural force?
What’s funny about the show is that you kind if see her unravel that façade,” said Walck. “She starts to unravel with everything going on because all the circumstances, she can’t keep it together any more. So, it’s fun to watch this kind of put-together woman who is kind of a taskmaster lose her cool throughout the entire evening.”
James Duggan plays the Brit, appropriately named Charles, who Director Emma Canalese describes as charming and endearing - while at the same time terrible. However, it’s the chemistry between this unearthly manage a’ trois that will captivate Naples Players audiences.
“There’s this energy that created between the three of them,” Canalese said. “It’s really magnetic to watch it. They really have like this energy that bounces between the three of them. They all are very different actors and it’s so fascinating to see the way that they all play off each other.”
There are four more reasons to catch this show. The first is Todd Potter’s stunning Art Deco set, followed by Molly Latorre’s equally bedazzling and intricately detailed costumes. Then there’s the old Victorian-style stage magic that makes the supernatural materialize on stage before the audience’s very eyes.
“I really have pushed the more physical element of this,” said Canalese. “I think that we are a different audience than who we were in the 1940s so there’s a different way that we can find our way into the comedy, and that’s between the physical and the little stage moments magic that happens.”
The fourth element is just as invisible as Elvira is to Ruth and the Bradmans, but no less evident, and that’s the unique relationship shared by Canalese, Walck and newcomer Karl Cherry, who plays the good doctor.
Canalese and Walck go back in time some 17 years to New York, where they were both students at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. Although Canalese has directed a handful of shows at The Naples Players, including “When We Were Young and Unafraid,” this is the first time that she has gotten to direct Walck.
“Having the opportunity for [Emma] to direct me has just been a dream of mine because I trust her implicitly,” Walck effuses. “She’s one of the most talented artists I’ve ever met. And for me, it reminds me of the cycle of theater and how we take and give back.”
Enter Cherry. He’s one of Walck’s acting students who she pushed to audition for the show.
“I took a class here like five years ago, but I didn’t stick to it because life happened,” said Cherry. “Eventually I came back and took a class with Jess and she’s probably the best acting coach that I’ve ever had. I respect her work and I would not have gone to auditions if it wasn’t for her. I got really lucky because the first audition I got the role. So I’m learning a lot from the both of them.”
This history adds palpably to the chemistry that permeates this superlative cast.
“Blithe Spirit” has been in circulation ever since its first West End production in 1941. A staple in both regional repertory and local community theatres, the play is also revived periodically on Broadway and the West End. The play feels current and contemporary because its themes are so universal and that’s something Canalese has accentuated through blocking and physicality.
“It’s quick. It’s snappy. It’s physical …. more physical, a little bit more farcical… and it works really, really well,” said Walck.
“Emma really has the audience in mind … the Naples audience … She’s been here for five years working with us as a director. So she understands what the audience wants. So she’s definitely giving them a comedic evening of theater and that’s what I think makes it timeless and this version, especially, timeless.”
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