The current Meredith Performs Theatre presentation of Blithe Spirit, which will be the college’s entry in Region IV of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, is a surprisingly strong student production of this comic masterpiece by Sir Noël Coward. Triangle theater veteran Eric Carl, last seen in Theatre in the Park’s superlative production of Art, adds another laurel to his acting crown with an incisive impersonation of wealthy author Charles Condomine, who cynically summons local medium Madame Arcati (junior Theatre major Athena Garner) to his estate to conduct a séance as research for his next novel.

Carl specializes in urbane and witty characters such as Charles, who is also a bit of a cad in the romance department, clandestinely flirting with other women while married to his now-deceased but flirtatious first wife Elvira (junior Musical Theatre major Rosa Wallace) and his lovely but bossy second wife Ruth (Meredith senior Natalie M. Hoffman). Charles sets up this séance as an after-dinner entertainment, but he gets a nasty surprise when the alluring ghost of the statuesque Elvira unexpectedly materializes in the Condomine living room, unseen by everyone but Charles.

Elvira thinks Charles’ love for her is so strong and enduring that he has summoned her from beyond the grave, and she is none too happy when he confesses that it was a ghastly “accident” that brought her back to the Condomine house in Kent. While an indignant Elvira ruthlessly schemes to get even with Charles, Charles desperately hunts for a way to avoid being an “astral bigamist.”

Eric Carl is terrific at expressing Charles’ increasing exasperation at the supernatural bind created by the séance gone awry. Rosa Wallace makes an alluring Elvira; and Natalie Hoffman hits just the right notes as Ruth, the not-quite-as-beautiful or sophisticated second wife who is, nevertheless, determined to distinguish herself by making the household run like clockwork.

Veteran actor Ian Finley and freshman Political Studies major McKenzie Carter, appearing in her very first Meredith Performs Theatre production, are suitably stuffy as the Condomines’ strait-laced friends, Dr. George and Violet Bradman; and Meredith Performs Theatre veteran Samantha M. Bland is a delight as the Condomines’ gawky country girl-turned-maid, who gallops through her duties like a big, clumsy puppy thundering through the house.

But it is Athena Garner who steals the show, with her wonderfully wacky performance as Madame Arcati, the stumbling, fumbling, bumbling medium who unintentionally ignites the plot by bringing the beautiful but acid-tongued Elvira back. Madame Arcati is a character with a capital C, and Garner explores every tic and twitch of this certified and, perhaps, certifiable English eccentric.

From her initial entrance, wearing a ghastly hat with a three-foot feather that simply must be seen to be believed, Garner evokes belly-laughs with the way she delivers her ditzy dialogue and with her pratfalls. Sometimes, she brings the house down, without uttering a word, as she strikes a wide-eyed pose or sniffs the air for the merest hint of a scent of a ghostly visitor. Very near a consummate comedienne already, Athena Garner has a bright, bright future ahead of her in the theater.

Director Carnessa Ottelin not only gets stellar performances from Eric Carl and Athena Garner, but she stages Blithe Spirit with considerable style and wit, deftly orchestrating the action so that the less gifted comic performers can still milk their roles and dialogue for every comic gem therein.

Scenic designer James Cuthrell creates an exceptionally detailed set in the Studio Theatre in Jones Hall, and decorates it with a colorful assortment of Modern Art, including a copy of “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. Lighting designer Steven Roten subtly and skillfully distinguishes between natural and supernatural scenes, and costume designer Amy Massey dresses the cast in an impressive assortment of fashions from the 1930s.

Sound designer Julie Jones punctuates the action with a nice assortment of period recordings including Elvira’s favorite song, “Always” but the doorbell sound is deafening. It sounds like the Condomines have installed the world’s largest set of Westminster chimes as their doorbell. Indeed, the doorbell alone could waken the dead!

Meredith Performs Theatre presents Blithe Spirit Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 27-29, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 30, at 2 p.m., in the Studio Theatre of Jones Hall, 3800 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $10 ($5 students and seniors). 919/760-2840. Meredith Performs Theatre: Internet Broadway Database: Internet Movie Database: Noël Coward Society: [inactive 12/06]. Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival: [inactive 9/07].

PREVIEW: Meredith Performs Theatre: A Blithe Spirit Haunts Her Former Husband in This Charming Comedy by Noël Coward

by Robert W. McDowell

Meredith Performs Theatre will stage Blithe Spirit, a glorious ghost story by British comic playwright, composer, and lyricist Sir Noël Coward (1899-1973), Oct. 25-30 in the Studio Theatre of Jones Hall. This sublime comedy, which made its Broadway debut on Nov. 5, 1941 at the Morosco Theatre and ran for 657 performances, will be Meredith’s entry in Region IV of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Blithe Spirit was first filmed in 1945 by director David Lean.

“Coward plays with words,” claims Meredith director Carnessa Ottelin, “and [he] words his plays with verve, sharp wit, and intelligence. [Blithe Spirit] is the only play where I’ve had the freedom to tell actors to ‘Be Bigger. I’ll tell you when it’s too much.’ The cast, crew, and designers are gloriously generous and freely creative. We’ve created an environment where we laugh and play; yet get a tremendous amount of hard work done. Who wouldn’t want to spend their time like that?”

When the curtain rises, Ottelin says, “Charles and Ruth Condomine (Eric Carl and Natalie Hoffman) invite Madame Arcati (Athena Garner), an eccentric, breezy lady medium, into their home in order to learn the language of the occult for Charles’ next novel. Also attending the séance are Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Ian Finley and McKenzie Carter), the town doctor and his snobbish wife.

“Little do the Condomines dream,” Ottelin adds, “that the séance staged by the medium will summon back Charles’ first wife, now ‘passed over’ for seven years. The mischievous first wife, Elvira (Rosa Wallace), then plots to get Charles over to the ghost world, only to have her plan backfire.

Ottelin notes, “Edith (Samantha Bland), the Condomine’s maid, also plays a key role in the goings-on at the Condomine household. Somehow, Charles must extricate himself from two very blithe spirits. Will he and Madame Arcati accomplish this task?”

In addition to director Carnessa Ottelin, the show’s production team includes movement coach Mary Helen Floyd, dialect coaches John Creagh and John Rose, set designer James Cuthrell, lighting designer Steven Roten, costume designer Amy Massey, sound designer Julie Jones, lighting Consultant Josh Allen, assistant director Karen Ainsley, and stage manager Chelsey Ferrell.

“The play takes place in during the late 1930s in an English country home,” says Carnessa Ottelin. “A set that could break apart quickly and yet convincingly present an affluent English countryside home consumed much discussion and planning.

She adds, “The dialect always presents a certain challenge when working with Noël Coward. I am grateful to John Creagh and John Rose, both dialect coaches, for their sharp ears.

“We needed the character’s movement to be fluid, reflecting the period,” says Ottelin. “Mary Helen Floyd, our movement coach, helped with this, with endless patience and resources.

Ottelin says, “The production team wrestled with the special effects we stage two séances, transport two ghosts back to the ‘other world,’ and wreak havoc on the Charles’ country home at the conclusion. Jamie, Julie, Chelsey, Karen, Josh, and Steven mixed wild imagination with logistic construction to accomplish the execution of effects. It truly was a team effort.”

She adds, “Blithe Spirit is a participating entry in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival for Region IV. We will receive a response to the production by two out-of-state theater professionals at Greensboro College on Nov. 2, 2005, with a chance to advance to the regionals after that.”

Meredith Performs Theatre presents Blithe Spirit Tuesday-Saturday, Oct. 25-29, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 30, at 2 p.m., in the Studio Theatre of Jones Hall, 3800 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $10 ($5 students and seniors). 919/760-2840. Meredith Performs Theatre: Internet Broadway Database: Internet Movie Database: Noël Coward Society: [inactive 12/06]. Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival: [inactive 9/07].