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Friday, December 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 38.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
Arts
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American Players Theatre's Blithe Spirit is a sharp summer farce
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Jim DeVita, Deborah Staples and Colleen Madden in <i>Blithe Spirit</i> by American Players Theatre.
Jim DeVita, Deborah Staples and Colleen Madden in Blithe Spirit by American Players Theatre.
Credit:Zane Williams

Two's company, three's a crowd, or so the old cliché goes. If that's true in our earthly realm, it seems especially true when the supernatural is involved, as in Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit, which opened Saturday night in the American Players Theatre outdoor amphitheater.

Charles and Ruth Condomine have a good-enough marriage, even if they bicker at times. Awaiting dinner guests at their posh country house in England, they banter and sip bone-dry martinis. One of their guests -- a daffy medium named Madame Arcati -- will unwittingly turn the household upside down when she enables the spirit of Charles' deceased first wife to materialize.

Tensions -- and classic Coward quips -- erupt as Charles, Ruth, and the late Elvira negotiate this unexpected state of affairs. In a way, Blithe Spirit is like the theatrical equivalent of highbrow beach reading: fluffy, but very cleverly done and studded with great lines ("Anybody can write books, but it takes an artist to make a dry martini that's dry enough.")

Like Coward's Hay Fever, which APT staged in 2009, Blithe Spirit is escapist fun, not a heavy night at the theater, and that's OK. Over the course of the season, it's balanced out with more substantial fare. Though written about fifteen years after Hay Fever, Blithe Spirit includes many of the same elements: a country-house setting, visitors who shake up the normal state of affairs, a husband who writes, an attention-seeking wife, and an overburdened servant.

APT core company actor Colleen Madden is reliably excellent as Ruth, making her direct without being brittle. Given the outlandish set-up -- Coward's own script dubbed it an "improbable farce" -- Madden needs to make us believe she is truly battling the spectral presence of her husband's first wife. She makes a fine counterpoint to Jim DeVita as Charles, her looser, somewhat immature husband.

While there's a certain essence to DeVita that seems to follow him in all his roles a little too much (a style of diction and carrying himself, perhaps), here it matches up perfectly with the demands of the role. Charles is a novelist, not a domineering captain of industry, and DeVita's physical ease makes him look right at home knocking back martinis and spouting bon mots in his elegant drawing room.

One of the juiciest roles, of course, is the ghost herself. As Elvira, Deborah Staples playfully swans about and also gets some of the choicest comic lines. With her platinum waves and her unearthly pallor, she paradoxically livens up her scenes, though some of her gestures are repetitious.

Blithe Spirit is a good play for funny women in general: the role of Edith the maid allows Anne Thompson to show her deftness at physical comedy, as does Madam Arcati's role, played with vigor by Susan Sweeney.

While the sound design is, at times, a little too "haunted house' for my taste, it's effective overall. Devon Painter's clever costume designs are a delight to look at and help illuminate the characters' natures.

Under the direction of David Frank, Blithe Spirit (APT's second Coward production) may not be groundbreaking stuff, but it is full of sharp writing and laugh-out-loud moments -- just the thing for a summer treat.

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