Poor Charles Condomine.
His ex, Elvira, is a pest – jealously undermining his current marriage to Ruth.
Unfortunately, she’s also a ghost – having shuffled off the mortal coil some seven years earlier.
Worse still for Charles, the shade of his former partner is invisible – and inaudible – to everyone but himself.
Not, mind you, that the visitation is entirely undeserved. The very British novelist is – to put it mildly – an immense egotist.
As part of research for a new book, and also as something of a lark, he has invited Madame Arcati – a supposed medium – to a dinner party at his and Ruth’s home in Kent.
Unfortunately for the pompous author, the eccentric Arcati, during a seance, conjures the spirit of Elvira – who then, stubbornly, refuses to be de-conjured.
That’s the central situation of Noel Coward’s “improbable farce in three acts,” Blithe Spirit, co-produced by Rebekah MacEwan and Christopher Nash for White Rock Players Club, running Sept. 21 to Oct. 8 at the Oceana PARC Playhouse (1532 Johnston Rd.).
Playing Charles is Luca Herring (The Stranger, Peninsula Productions), with Katherine Morris (Baskerville, White Rock Players) as Ruth, Tina Teeninga (Baskerville) as Elvira, Lori Tych (The Stranger) as Madame Arcati, Abrielle Dumanski as Edith, Chris Carvelli as Dr. George Brandman and Beth Cantor (Best Divorce Ever, White Rock Players) as Violet Brandman.
Coward’s witty 1941 play also marks the directorial debut of rising Peninsula theatre star Adrian Shaffer, who has not only appeared in a staggering variety of roles for WRPC over the last half decade, but was also assistant director to Thomas Gage on Baskerville, and Julianne Christie on Other Desert Cities last season.
“I first became acquainted with the play five years ago,” Shaffer said.
“It has a great history – it’s been revived, successfully, multiple times over 82 years.
“It has everything I love about theatre; everything that made me want to be involved in theatre. All the elements come together in it: atmosphere, characters, a well-constructed story…
“It’s amazing that Coward wrote it over six days, at a time when Britain was being torn apart by war – even though there’s no mention of that in the play.”
Interestingly, it was embraced by wartime audiences in both Britain and the U.S. who, Coward correctly judged, were ready for a piece of escapism that actually dared make light of death – even though novelist and critic Graham Greene attacked it, at the time, as “a weary exhibition of bad taste.”
Shaffer suggests that Coward, with finger firmly on the public pulse, may have had deeper things to say about British attitudes than theatregoers were aware of in the early forties.
“It’s not just a farce, it’s a satirical farce, so part of our job is to understand what he was trying to say about his society at the time.”
It’s interesting, they added, that the Condomines are the authors of their own misfortune in the play – in bringing Arcati into their home they have set in motion a train of events that “spirals into an ever more chaotic disaster.”
Shaffer, as a self-confessed connoisseur of the “spooky,” is also delighted to be directing a show with a such a ghostly, supernatural element.
“Ghosts have such a rich history in theatre, going back to Ancient Greece. They’re usually around to deliver a message, to illuminate a situation,” they said.
“I definitely had Hamlet’s father in mind when I read this, and there’s more than a trace of Hamlet, in fact, in Charles Condomine. You could make a case that a lot of this may be going on in Charles’ head.”
As with many of Coward’s other pieces, ‘The Master’ wrote the leading male role with himself in mind – and as much as it has elements of self-satire, it’s also designed for his exacting standards of theatrical delivery.
“It’s so precisely and intelligently written; there’s such a lot of word-play – you can’t afford to miss a single word,” Shaffer said.
That, they agreed, does tend to place exceptional pressure on a community theatre production.
“I knew going into this I’d have to be very careful in casting. I wanted it to feel like an ensemble cast – each character is important to the play, and each actor had to be able to bring the same level of consistency and commitment to it.”
Fortunately, they said, the cast has met the challenge extremely well.
“They’re really impressing me,” Shaffer said.
“Luca is phenomenal. He told me that Charles Condomine is a dream role of his, and he has an almost innate understanding of what the part calls for. He has to play against two very strong female characters, but I knew he’d be able to hold his own on stage alongside of them.”
Shaffer said they first encountered Morris and Teeninga through working with them on the small-cast Sherlock Holmes spoof Baskerville.
“Katherine played 14 characters in that show – I knew immediately she was someone to watch. She brings such intelligence and confidence to the role of Ruth.
“Tina makes a wonderful, playful, elusive Elvira, with all the coy impishness the character needs to drive a wedge between Charles and Ruth.”
Seasoned dramatic and comedy player Tych brought exactly the quality to Madame Arcati Shaffer was looking for, they said.
“Arcati is all over the map – is she a fake, is she genuine?” Shaffer said.
“I wanted someone who could play to both sides of that and Lori has so many wonderful, intelligent ideas and brings so many creative offers to me as a director.”
As the Brandmans, Carvelli and Cantor also bring much more to the table than conventional characterization, Shaffer said.
“Chris and Beth are fantastic character actors and they have developed a wonderful rapport. They took the characters and ran with them – Chris has a gift for sarcasm, and Beth is doing something every single second. You can’t take your eyes off them.”
Illustrating the point that there are no small parts, Dumanski plays the role of Edith, the Condomines’ over-eager fill-in maid with flair, Shaffer said.
“Edith is a special character, and I knew I wanted someone, like Abrielle, who could make the most of each time they’re on stage.”
Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. with 2:30 p.m. Sunday matinees.
For tickets ($28 adults, $24 seniors and youth) visit whiterockplayers.ca/buytickets or call 604-536-7535.