Curtains: Southwest Shakespeare's Blithe Spirit Is Blithe and Spirited, Thank God
Wanna know a secret about publicity photos? A show's final hair and makeup designs often do not appear in them, since they're taken weeks or months before opening night.
Ash Rhodes, BlackHole Photography Justine Hartley (left), Ben Tyler, and Serena Vesper are ectoplasmically challenged in Blithe Spirit.
While everyone in the above photo looks lovely, and it's a very good photograph, these actors look even better on stage in Southwest Shakespeare Company's current production of Noël Coward's charming, witty 1940s classic, Blithe Spirit. That's especially Justine Hartley as the late Elvira Condomine. Hubba hubba! Death becomes her.
Of course, a sparkly, diaphanous gown (by Amanda Gran, along with all the other splendid, detailed, accurate costumes), platinum marcelled waves, luscious alabaster flesh, and all the flawless makeup in the world add up to nothing more than a reality show contestant if the person cannot act, especially in the intimate confines of Mesa Arts Center's Farnsworth Studio Theater. But wow, Hartley (who happens to be Mariette Hartley's daughter, so maybe she picked up a few tricks during carpool) acts up a storm.
Director Don Bluth (yes! the famous animator) has his whole ensemble hitting the delicate stylized, mannered, and verbose balance that this farce requires, while keeping things cuddly enough for the space, but Hartley, in particular, Owns. It. To be fair to the rest of the cast, Elvira's a ghost, so she's probably supposed to be nonchalant, meticulously groomed, and better-rested than the others. But she's also languorous, supremely confident, and emitting some kind of subliminal pheromone, I swear. Take your eyes off her. I dare you.
When she isn't on the set, Jared Sakren frequently is, in excellent drag as the psychic Madame Arcati. Sometimes -- though this may be simply my opinion as a female actor -- it's easier and/or more effective when a man plays a woman who's supposed to be extra-super-flamboyant, larger than life, an overwhelming force of nature. We can do it -- I've seen women do it -- but in this case Sakren, Bluth, and the design team have created a national treasure of some sort. And I'm pretty sure my mother-in-law thinks Madame was played by a woman. (If I didn't know Sakren and hadn't looked very closely at my program, I think I might've for a while, too.)
So: well-acted, pretty, funny, clever, perfectly scaled. Sakren's set, full of fusty vintage furniture and knickknacks, plus the obligatory fully stocked bar from every British home in the world's dramatic canon, is quite nice, once you get downstage of the hideous untextured charcoal gray walls, which are thankfully drab and ignorable. The choice to turn everything on a diagonal in the "black box" venue gives us maximum seating and visibility -- the set has just two walls, and everything's nearly in your lap. (Yum.)
The play is a bit long (the Blithe Spirit I saw last season had had big chunks cut out, apparently, or there are alternate versions of the script), just so you know (there is an intermission, and the evening curtain is at 7:30), but every moment was a pleasure.