Season’s ghostings: Blithe Spirit, Irma Vep, Noël at Noël

A little Ludlam and a lot of Coward brighten the season without the specter of all-out Christmas themes

Little ghosts, everywhere.

Look, over there at Portland Playhouse: It’s the spirits of Christmases Past, Present, and Future, in the revival of last December’s Christmas Carol that took home about a zillion hunks of hardware from June’s Drammy Awards.

Over there, in the Armory: the same three spirits, gone a bit more bonkers, in Portland Center Stage’s second wrestle with The Second City’s A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens.

Coming soon to Keller Auditorium: All those rodenty souls of vanquished rat soldiers littering the stage in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s latest incarnation of The Nutcracker, which crosses swords and slippers beginning this Saturday, December 13.

And of course, the sleek and cunning Elvira, haunting the stage of Artists Rep in Blithe Spirit, and the misfortunate Irma at Third Rail Rep in the Winningstad Theatre, casting a pall over a very odd old English manse in The Mystery of Irma Vep. It’s these latter two we’ll be discussing here, along with the shades of their late, great creators: Noël Coward, whose theatrical roots stretched back to the Edwardian era and who helped define a certain 20th century brittle sophistication; and Charles Ludlam, who cheerfully ransacked everything from Victorian melodrama to Wagner to cheesy horror movies. Bonus pick: a raffish little cabaret performance of Coward songs, Noël at Noël, put together by Susannah Mars and friends for just two performances (the second is tonight, Monday, December 8) at Artists Rep.

Norby and Lamb: It's a mystery. Photo: Owen Carey

Norby and Lamb: It’s a mystery. Photo: Owen Carey

 

 THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP

One of the selling points of both Blithe Spirit and Irma Vep is that they’re good holiday season shows without actually being about Christmas: light, stylish, funny, a little bubbly, but not burdened with perennial obligation. You can get into the spirit of things, so to speak, without feeling as if you’ve just wandered into a scene from a Hallmark greeting card.

How Irma got from her cult Downtown Manhattan beginnings in a basement theater 30 years ago, when she was at the epicenter of a revolutionary gay theater scene, to today’s mainstream holiday-comedy-of-choice is a fascinating tale. Ludlam was the creative spark of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, a cheekily transgressive troupe that reveled in drag performances and, at a time when being openly gay was still vastly difficult, cheerfully flaunted its gayness. In the company’s early years most of its audience was gay men, and the bawdy in-jokes batted around the room like Ping Pong balls in the rec room of a YMCA. Ludlam, who starred in the original Irma with his lover Everett Quinton, died of complications from AIDS in 1987, at age 44, and if he had survived he might well have become a major mainstream playwright, because he was becoming better and better at what he did at the same time that American attitudes toward homosexuality were slowly beginning to thaw. While we hardly live in a perfect world of acceptance today (feel free to file that under the heading Annals of Understatement), the changes over the past 30 years have been startling, and in a way, theater and movie people have had a role in that: Dustin Hoffman starring in Tootsie, Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage, Robert Preston and Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria, all three of which were massive popular hits. These days, shows like Irma are almost mainstream family fun.

That’s a big gain, and a little bit of a loss. When a cult show breaks wide, it loses some of the anarchic recklessness of its subcultural origins. What once were the sharp elbows of insider nudge-nudge get protectively padded and smoothed out. In Third Rail’s beautifully realized production, in which the actors Leif Norby and Isaac Lamb go giddily overboard while maintaining strict stylistic control (try that sometime: it ain’t easy), the sense of original audience, of being a product of and for a select group of people, is the one missing element. At Sunday’s opening-weekend matinee performance a lot of the gay humor, the comic thrusts and double entendres, seemed either to be going over the audience’s head or simply not as funny anymore because they’ve become commonplace. On Sunday things were smooth but a little airless during the opening act, which was performed presentationally in a traditional proscenium manner. After intermission Norby and Lamb entered from the back, bantering with the audience, ad-libbing a bit, and the energy immediately picked up: this is the sort of show that works best in an intimate space, with the performers and a simpatico audience steaming in the same kettle of clams.

Lamb as Lady Enid, Norby as Lord Edgar: crying wolf. Photo: Owen Carey

Lamb as Lady Enid, Norby as Lord Edgar: crying wolf. Photo: Owen Carey

That said, Third Rep’s production is as close to a flawless show as you’re likely to run into for a long time. The cast credits name eight characters: four played by Lamb, three by Norby, and the eighth, the tragic Irma herself, listed as “Unknown,” which turns out to be just about right: It is Irma Vep’s sad fate to not make an appearance in her own play, unless you count the trickle of blood from her portrait over the mantel when it’s accidentally shot. What we do have is Lamb as a clumping, one-eyed, wooden-legged swineherd in the family manse of Lord Edgar Hillcrest; as Lady Enid, Irma’s successor and Lord Edgar’s second wife; and as a couple of characters encountered on a trip of discovery to an ancient Egyptian crypt. Norby embodies Lord Edgar; the sinister housemaid Jane Twisden; and “An Intruder.” An extraordinary amount of the fun is watching the two actors zip in and out of these roles, often with uncanny speed, and in and out of Alison Heryer’s flamboyant, zip-and-strip costumes. Major props to the wardrobe and stage crew who make these lightning changes possible: Laura Coe, Kelly Cullom, Karen Hill, and Matthew Jones. Kristeen Crosser’s Stately Home set, which opens up mechanically for the tale from the crypt and the unveiling of the mummy, is a perfectly Gothic horror – that is, for Gothic horror purposes, it’s perfect.

I won’t trouble you with plot points, because the plot doesn’t really make a lot of difference, although it’s cleverly calibrated: Irma Vep is a well-crafted puzzle. I will mention that werewolves and vampires and a mangled milkmaid and a lost child and some darkly twisted passions and howling noises over the moor play their parts in the thing, and that watching Lamb and Norby, as directed nimbly by Philip Cuomo, whack away at their panoply of roles is a pure theatrical pleasure. Lamb does a fetching belly dance as an unleashed Egyptian queen, but he truly shines as dim and drooling Nicodemus, the clomping swineherd with a furtive secret. Norby’s shifts between anguished/pompous Lord Edgar and domineering/calculating Jane are quick and beguilingly complete.

And what about poor ghostly Irma, the unseen hand that guides the action? I can only say, God rest her haunted soul – and thanks for being there. Really. Without her, we’d be bereft.

 

Hennessy gets into the spirit with O'Brien. Photo: Owen Carey

Hennessy gets into the spirit with O’Brien. Photo: Owen Carey

 

BLITHE SPIRIT

Artists Rep’s production of Coward’s otherworldly 1941 comedy, directed by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Christopher Liam Moore, was a runaway hit before it even opened previews, extending twice before opening night: originally scheduled to end December 21, it’ll now close on January 4. Talk about riding the wave of the zeitgeist: this puppy might be the surfer of the year.

Coward’s been on my mind lately, and apparently on a lot of other people’s, too. First, I watched my son play Elyot in Coward’s other most enduring hit, Private Lives, in a first-act, student-directed production at his high school. He was improbably dashing in his dress pants and dinner jacket, planting kisses smack on his costar’s lips and tossing off a very funny “Don’t quibble, Sybil”: I was disconcertingly impressed.

Then I drove to Salem to see Pentacle Theatre’s Blithe Spirit, now closed, with my friend Nyla McCarthy as the indomitable Madame Arcati and her husband, Peter Bale, as Dr. Bradman, in a highly amusing and handsomely mounted community-theater production directed by Debbie Neel.

Then I took in the first night of the Coward cabaret, Noel at Noël: more on that below.

Finally, I squeezed into Artists Rep’s Blithe Spirit, which is as handsome a production as Irma Vep (set by Alan Schwanke; drop-dead, if you’ll pardon the expression, costumes by Nancy Hills) and which features something of a Portland all-star cast led by Michael Mendelson as Charles Condomine, the clever and unfortunate fellow who finds himself saddled with two wives at the same time because the dithering medium Madame Arcati (veteran Vana O’Brien, in a role that fits her like a silk evening glove), by some minor miracle of the occult occupation, has managed to summon his first wife back from the grave.

It’s a bit of a joke that sassy Elvira (Sara Hennessy) is the one who’s shuffled off this mortal coil, because as Coward wrote her she has more life force than anyone else in the room: she’s truly a wayward spirit, a pleasure-seeker, a carnal goddess, hellbent on getting her own way and devoted to the indulgences of life. It’s struck me that Elvira’s demise and uncanny return have something to do with the timing of the play itself, which made its debut in 1941, when England was deep at war and London was being blitzed by German bombs. In a way, Elvira’s ghost stands in for England itself, which was undergoing a near-death experience but was sure enough of itself to know it would be bouncing back, as tough and lively and irreverent as ever. It would be a mistake to follow the metaphor too closely or literally: the parallels aren’t exact, and Blithe Spirit isn’t Pilgrim’s Progress. But thinking of Elvira this way adds a little undercurrent of resonance.

Like Ludlam, Coward was a gay man. Unlike Ludlam, he didn’t emphasize it professionally, although in his wide social circles he didn’t much bother to hide it, either. He simply thought that private lives and public lives were different, and of course in his time being openly gay as a public figure was an invitation to trouble: It hadn’t been all that long since Oscar Wilde had been tossed into Reading Gaol. Over the years people have suggested that Charles’s eventual frustrations with both Elvira and his second wife, Ruth, are a result of Coward’s gayness, but I tend not to agree: I think they have more to do with his feeling for the mechanics of comedy and his understanding of the discontents and competing passions of domesticity in whatever form it takes. In both Blithe Spirit and Private Lives a kind of ghostliness is at the center of things: the tricky and unreliable memory of old relationships impinging on the stability and growth of new ones. We can’t escape our pasts, Coward seems to be telling us, and that’s really proof of our foolishness. I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that Blithe Spirit represents another sort of ghost, as well: the spirit of an old but still beloved form of theater, the sophisticated, well-made comedy, which is clever and frankly artificial and brittle yet surprisingly tensile in its structure. Maybe that’s what makes Blithe Spirit a good draw for the holiday season, when traditional values of all sorts kick in.

Wife No. 2 (Van Velzer) gets a right scare from Wife No. 1 (Hennessy). Photo: Owen Carey

Wife No. 2 (Van Velzer) gets a right scare from Wife No. 1 (Hennessy). Photo: Owen Carey

I saw Artists Rep’s Blithe Spirit on a Wednesday evening, the first show after opening weekend and after the cast had had a couple of days off. The whole thing was smooth and gorgeous, but also a little flat, which I took to be a matter of getting back in the groove. I expect it has by now. To truly take off, a Coward production has to be fast and agile: not so much an Indianapolis 500 sort of race as an Italian mountain sports car rally, where pedal-to-the-metal meets mastery of the gearshift. On Wednesday, the show was taking it a little carefully around the corners.

The talent’s unquestionably there: Mendelson in a funny and precisely manic mood, Hennessy all saucy and sassy, Allen Nause bluff and genial as the visiting Dr. Bradman, JoAnn Johnson in a slyly funny performance as the good-hearted and gullible Mrs. Bradman, Val Landrum as the clunkily inept maid Edith (Coward created theatrical worlds in which servants, inept or not, were as natural a part of the environment as dry martinis and cigarette cases), O’Brien, in a role originated by Margaret Rutherford, as a classically British backbone-of-the-nation oddball. On Wednesday Jill Van Velzer seemed the most comfortably and pliably up to speed member of the cast, playing what might be the comedy’s most difficult role: Ruth, Condomine’s second wife, who needs to be a bit of a nag and a drag but somehow also must hold the audience’s sympathy.

In my crystal ball I see sold-out houses. Get your tickets soon, or you won’t stand a ghost of a chance.

 

NOËL AT NOËL

This quick and easy cabaret, subtitled Susannah Mars & Friends Sing the Music of Noël Coward, meshes nicely and naturally with Blithe Spirit (it’s performed on the same set) and creates a pleasing showcase for a small group of young and veteran talent. It’s also the first in a projected series of cabarets at Artist Rep, Artists Rep in Concert, organized by Mars, the talented actor and singer, whose knowledge of theater songs runs deep and wide. Mars is one of Artist’s Rep’s resident artists, and this is one more fruit of that loose-knit program, which among other things encourages individual projects by its members.

Noël Coward, ca. 1930. Wikimedia Commons

Noël Coward, ca. 1930. Wikimedia Commons

Mars herself and veteran actor Del Lewis are the core of the show, which features 20 songs, among them such plums as Why Must the Show Go On?, Marvelous Party, Twentieth Century Blues, the iconic Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and the bittersweet Mad About the Boy. (“Sir Noël wrote 300-plus songs, for the love of God!” the show’s director, Sarah Lucht, told me. “It was tough choosing, let me tell you!”) They’re joined by three young singer/actors from the musical theater company Staged! (Voni Kengla, Aimee Martin, and Isaiah Rosales), and the arrangement reminded me of the advantages of the guild-like old company system, under which young performers playing juvenile roles learned the tricks of the trade by acting side by side with their more experienced elders. The five singers are accompanied, superbly and wittily, by musical director Rick Lewis on piano.

Coward and Cole Porter, the Englishman and the American, are inevitably paired in discussions of sophisticated 20th century music and theater comedy, although unlike Coward, who was a master playwright, Porter stuck to music. I know Porter’s music better, and while I tend to put the two on a par as masterful lyricists, I’ve always thought of Porter as a subtler and more complex composer. Noël at Noël doesn’t change that view, but it’s a good reminder that Coward’s compositions, though more strictly theatrical and less easily adaptable to jazz and pop styles, were pretty darned appealing, too. Mars is an elegant host and savvy interpreter with a smart feel for the stories inside the songs, and Lewis is an adept and engaging interpreter who sometimes seems to channel Coward’s own performance style.

The show was put together quickly, without much rehearsal, and it sometimes shows: as enjoyable and appealing as it is, a little more polish would have brought it together more successfully. It’s also a very brief run; by the time you read this it may already be history. But Portland needs more cabaret venues, and there’s great promise here. As a song not written by Coward, but by Steve Allen, puts it: this could be the start of something big.

________________

Read more from Bob Hicks >>

Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Comments are closed.