When City Repertory Theatre presents a staged reading Dec. 2-5 of Sir Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” which the English playwright called “a light comedy about death,” the poignancy of the production will be plain to see.
“We’re doing ‘Blithe Spirit’ as a tribute to Anne Kraft, who passed away in the spring,” says City Rep director and co-founder John Sbordone. Kraft was a St. Augustine native and resident who worked as an actor in New York before returning to her home town, where she co-founded that city’s Limelight Theatre and became a veteran performer with Palm Coast’s City Repertory Theatre.
“Everybody in the show will have been in a cast with Anne,” Sbordone says. “We will set up a tribute to Anne in the lobby. It will be a special time for us.”
Coward’s 1941 comedy tells the story of Charles Condomine, a writer who, seeking material for his next book on spiritualism, hires a medium named Madame Arcati to hold a séance. The medium inadvertently summons the ghost of his nagging first wife, Elvira, who sets about disrupting the writer’s marriage to his second wife, Ruth – who can’t see or hear Elvira’s spirit.
The play, Sbordone says, “would have been Anne’s cup of tea.”
The CRT production stars Earl Levine as Condomine, Victoria Page as Madame Arcati, Julia Truilo as Ruth and Annie Gaybis as Elvira.
“I think Anne would love that we are doing this beautifully worded, light-hearted comedy,” Sbordone said on CRT’s Facebook page. “She is laughing right now at Earl’s blustering antics, Victoria’s zany eccentricities, Annie’s sensual ghostly spirit and Julia’s outrageously put-upon second wife. We have all worked with Anne on stage and cherish her memory.”
According to a 2014 story in the British newspaper The Guardian, Coward was 11 years old and had just performed in his first play when, in 1911, his mother Violet took him to attend a “public séance” by the American medium Anna Eva Fay. Though Fay was exposed as a fraud at various times throughout her career, she nevertheless gained fame for displaying psychic feats on stage, including channeling the dead for their wisdom.
When Violet Coward asked Fay about her son’s future in the theater, the medium replied that Noel was destined for “a wonderful career.”
Whatever the nature of Fay’s psychic gifts, her prophecy proved true: Coward (1899-1973) gained fame as a playwright, composer, director, actor, singer, poet and short story writer. Of his 50-plus plays, he’s known for “Private Lives,” “Design for Living” and “Blithe Spirit,” with the latter having numerous revivals in both America and Britain since its debut in blitzkrieged London in 1941.
The show’s premiere established a then-record run of 1,997 performances for non-musical plays in Britain. “Blithe Spirit” debuted on Broadway later in 1941, running for 657 performances. Coward adapted his play in 1945 for a film starring Rex Harrison, and the playwright directed a musical version titled “High Spirits” on Broadway in 1964. The play’s numerous professional revivals included one in London in 2020.
“I shall be forever grateful for the almost psychic gift that enabled me to write ‘Blithe Spirit’ during the darkest days of the war,” Coward said, as quoted by The Guardian. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Coward volunteered to serve and ran the British propaganda office in Paris. He was knighted in 1969.
City Rep’s staged-reading format means that, yes, the cast will be reading from readily visible scripts.
“We’ve had great success with staged readings going back to ‘Bus Stop’ and ‘Pygmalion,’ ” Sbordone said in a previous FlaglerLive article. “It allows us to do plays that may be a bit too complex for us to (fully) stage. It also gives the actors an opportunity to do a special technique that I call ‘off-stage focus.’ ”
The technique is one in which the actors “see” each other “just above the audience and they interact with the images they see,” Sbordone says. Theater-goers are “then able to see the play in the area between the actors and the audience. It’s an older technique that comes out of readers’ theater and oral interpretation, and it’s quite successful.”
Sbordone will be employing the technique himself – he portrays Dr. Bradman in CRT ‘s “Blithe Spirit.”
“I’m brilliant with a script in front of me,” Sbordone says with a chuckle. “Just don’t ask me to memorize the script. I’m playing the doctor. It’s a secondary role but it keeps the play moving.”
The cast, which also includes Joanne van Zyl and Jen Chidekel, will be costumed. Sound effects – produced by what is called a Foley artist in the worlds of film, television and theatre — will be created by Beau Wade.
Kraft worked 25 years as a professional actor in New York before returning to Florida, where she worked with Limelight Theatre and A Classic Theatre in St. Augustine, and performed in City Rep productions of “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Women,” “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” “Other Desert Cities,” “Waltz of the Toreadors” and many more.
She also directed numerous productions, including her last play, “Two for the Seesaw,” an independent production of that 1958 Broadway work by William Gibson. Due to the pandemic, the play was professionally filmed by Eclipse Studios at its facility in St. Augustine, and was streamed online last February, with proceeds benefiting the Palm Coast Arts Foundation and CRT.
–Rick de Yampert for FlaglerLive
City Repertory Theatre will stage “Blithe Spirit” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday Dec. 2 through Saturday Dec. 4. The performance at 3 p.m. Sunday Dec. 5 is sold out. Performances will be in CRT’s black box theater at City Marketplace, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Suite B207, Palm Coast. Tickets: $20 adults, $15 students, available online at eventbrite.com, by calling 386-585-9415, or at the venue just before showtime.