It's out of this world

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  April 8, 2008

Not all of Uys’s material translates, though his love of the homeland whose hand he bites comes through loud and clear. So does his anger, among the chief targets of which are AIDS-ignorant Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, whose liver transplant Uys chalks up to drink, and Zimbabwean first lady Grace Mugabe, whose selfishness takes the form of a land-grab variation on “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” A master clown, the self-effacing Uys manages to be lovable even when his material is scathing. In his own guise (balding, a bit thick, in black tunic, pants, and eyeliner), the performer urges us to approach the upcoming election in a state of arousal rather apathy. Elections & Erections, too, is worth getting it up for.

Noël Coward had already made hay of spatting exes in Private Lives. But in that 1930 success, the sparking, feuding former spouses were both alive and kicking. By the time the scribbler with “just a talent to amuse” applied that lissome gift to Blithe Spirit, it took not just coinciding honeymoons but a full-out séance to bring a sundered couple back together — and once again there was the complication of the second spouse. First presented in 1941, when most of England needed a laugh, Blithe Spirit has little more substance than the “protoplasmic manifestations” among its characters, and its conjuration gimmick does grow thin when stretched over three acts. But for most of its duration, Coward’s romantic farce set at a revolving door to the Great Beyond is sheer delight. And so is the quick, crisp Trinity Repertory Company revival (through April 27), which races through Coward’s cocktail-era mix of drollery and pyrotechnics with only a single intermission to catch its breath.

At the helm of the lavish and frantic production is artistic director Curt Columbus, better known for his translations of Chekhov than for such Cowardly lionizing as this. And though he’s not turned Blithe Spirit into The Seagull or even a Conor McPherson play with wittier ghosts, he has found the humanity in Coward’s fanciful collision of drawing-room comedy, occult quackery, and ectoplasm with an agenda. Here the characters, even when trying to hold down a table subject to astral influence or doing odd voodoo dances with bits of flora, seem real enough that you appreciate how potentially kinky the play’s situation is.

It doesn’t start that way, of course. All is upper-class English-village calm as the curtain goes up on set designer James Schuette’s palatial parlor, with its smoke-scrolling fireplace, multiple chintzes, and lightly draped French doors looking out on a wall of shrubbery. There’s even a skewed rectangle of crown molding and a chandelier — though no ceiling, as if the ozone layer had been turned into an English manor without losing its worrisome hole. Successful novelist Charles and second wife Ruth, in a rust satin gown that matches her drapes, are delighting in a series of very dry martinis before welcoming dinner guests: a couple of beards in the form of a bibulous country doctor and his controlling wife and the main attraction, a self-declared medium named Madame Arcati, whose shtick Charles means to mine for a novel. Unfortunately, Madame Arcati is not quite the charlatan she seems, and before you know it, the ghost of Charles’s dead first wife, the provocative Elvira, is wafting around the place, seen and heard only by him. Hold on to your ouija board, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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