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'Blithe Spirit' gets stifled in the execution

Part of the fun of a good comedy is the extent to which its characters are exaggerated. Even an apparently refined British comedy of manners like "Blithe Spirit" provides deep, multifaceted comic characters ripe for the right actor to embrace.

But in the Irish Classical Theatre Company's production of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit," a stifling reverence for Coward's script seems to have numbed the impact of its two most potentially amusing characters -- the ghost Elvira (Dawn Woollacott) and the eccentric Madame Arcati (Josephine Hogan).

The play is a three-act farce that centers on the travails of Charles Condomine (Christian Brandjes) and his wife, Ruth (Kristen Tripp Kelley), as they struggle with the appearance of Elvira, the ghost of Charles' late wife. The trouble begins with a seance initiated by the occult expert Madame Arcati, and all manner of hijinks ensues, as Charles is beset on all sides by what he sees as nagging and overbearing women. Throughout, in typical Coward style, the characters drink more martinis than James Bond on a bender.

Technically, the play is spot-on, with a gorgeous set and wise lighting design by co-director Brian Cavanagh and Geraldine Duskin's fine costumes all around. The complex witty repartee, traded often at lightning speed, is delivered with perfect fidelity to Coward's writing. Even two of the lead roles, Charles and Ruth Condomine, are nicely performed, though some of the funnier lines between them occasionally get lost in the high-strung banter.

The major disappointment is Elvira, a spirit who comes off more blithering than blithe, trapped somewhere between Hollywood starlet and vile seductress. But as a seductress, Woollacott is not nearly vile enough, seeming almost scared to delve into the deviousness her character seems to require.

Even Hogan, as the medium Madame Arcati, though very charming in spots, seems a bit too subdued. Though clearly an attempt was made, one can't expect Hogan herself to add all the color to an otherwise monochromatic show.

As the Condomines' somewhat clueless and constantly bemused friend Mrs. Bradman, Kathleen Betsko Yale's small role is a great joy to watch. Hers is probably the most magnetic performance onstage among some others that might not even stick to your refrigerator.

None of this is to say that the inherent humor of the show is completely obscured. It isn't, and in fact much of the absurdist, martini-soaked nature of moneyed relationships that Coward intended to portray comes across sufficiently.

But the final product, close to the script as it may be, ends up as dry as the martinis.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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>Theater Review

"Blithe Spirit"

Review: 2 1/2 stars (out of four)

Comedy presented by Irish Classical Theatre Company, running through May 20 in Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St. For more information, call 853-4282 or visit www.irishclassicaltheatre.com.

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