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Blithe Bumgarner 

Plus, a prickly Quills

It's been awhile since we've seen Lon Bumgarner directing an utterly carefree comedy -- so long that you may have forgotten how good he is at it. When he was dominating the Loaf's directing awards from 1987-90, Bumgarner certainly garnered accolades for his Hamlet, Macbeth and Three Sisters with Charlotte Shakespeare Company. Yet his work was sometimes even more revelatory in frothier fare such as Scapino!, House of Blue Leaves, You Can't Take It With You and What the Butler Saw.

Now he's back at Theatre Charlotte, directing his first comedy at the Queens Road barn in over a decade. You don't want to miss Bumgarner's irreverent take on Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit -- or the fine ensemble he has recruited to the cause.

Homing in on the ghoulish spirit of Halloween, Bumgarner has taken the genteel Kent estate of Charles Condomine and turned it into a vision out of Edward Gorey -- one that still serves cucumber sandwiches. Brian Ruggaber's set tilts toward us at a dangerous angle, thick-grained, decrepit, and entirely black-and-white. There's enough white pancake makeup on Charles to gain him admission into a leper colony. Green olives have been banned from his dry martinis, replaced with black.

Clinching the turnaround, Charles' deceased wife Elvira whisks in from the spirit world dressed in a fiery red negligee, devilishly seductive and nothing like the gray vision decreed by Coward. Her summoner, neighborhood medium Madame Arcati, no longer confines her eccentricities to bright gladrags, beads and tweeds. Now she's a flamboyant Russian gypsy, draped entirely in black by costume designer Annie-Laurie Wheat, with amulets and peasant stylings inspired by Maria Ouspenskaya. A far cry from Margaret Rutherford, Coward's original choice.

Commanding the stage every time she appears as Madame Arcati, Laura Depta is more of a large than a medium. Inspired by an outrageously curly jet-black wig, Depta's stagey Russian accent achieves maximum density, and she flirts with Charles as intently as Elvira herself. She believes that our world is engirdled by spirits, and there's a warm touch of maternal protectiveness when she establishes contact.

Paige Johnston counterbalances the mystic Arcati perfectly as Elvira -- sexy, sarcastic, rapacious, and skeptical to the bone. Coward probably conceived Charles's first wife as a goddess hovering far above morality. Slinking across the stage and draping herself suggestively over every plush chair and settee, Johnston's Elvira is a calculating sociopath.

Rounding out the triumvirate of women who flutter and cackle around Charles, Chandler McIntyre is the essence of petulant possessiveness as his current wife Ruth. Charming, poised and resolutely obtuse, McIntyre's Ruth is decorously fond of Charles -- but never to excess.

At the center of it all, Carl McIntyre is absolutely brilliant as Charles. He has the looks and urbanity to justify all the women's incessant flutterings, plus the exact measure of how an English gentleman becomes upset. Confidence radiates from McIntyre's performance, particularly in his off-handed manner of delivering Charles's most devastating jibes and witticisms.

The excellence of the cast nearly extends through the minor roles. Alan Nelson is adequate as Dr. Bradman even if, unlike serious actors, he hasn't grown a real beard for the role, but as Mrs. Bradman, Kathryn Burns is clearly outclassed in this ensemble.

No such problem with Nicia Carla as the hyper housemaid, Edith. Whether clopping insanely across stage with glassware or drifting dopily into a mystic trance, CL's reigning Actress of the Year is a hoot.

With alert lighting from Biff Edge abetted by cunning set construction from Ruggaber, the supernatural technical effects of Blithe Spirit are executed with the same brio as the comedy. This is Noel Coward as you've never seen him -- and each of Bumgarner's radical changes works like a charm.Up in NoDa, two Halloween bacchanals have come and gone at Boudreaux's Louisiana restaurant and the new Hart-Witzen Gallery. But on Cullman Avenue, the decadence lingers on. Even if you've seen the movie, the stage version of Quills is well worth a peep in its current Off-Tryon Theatre production. While Doug Wright adapted his own 1996 playscript for the 2000 film, the two are starkly different in many specifics, even diverging in their prime thematic thrusts.Gone is the pieta image of the Marquis swallowing a crucifix and dying Christ-like in front of the memorable backdrop of shit-daubed dungeon walls. There's an extra gruesome stage to De Sade's martyrdom and altogether different ironies. The Abbe de Coulmier doesn't go mad in the original stage version, but he descends deeper into sadism. While the hypocritical Doctor Royer-Collard doesn't go mad, either, he displays some pointed symptoms we never saw onscreen from Michael Caine.

Even the Marquis is notably different in Hank West's portrayal. We lose perhaps too much of the aristocratic hauteur we saw from Geoffrey Rush in the film, but we get more wit, more petulant resentment, and this De Sade is more... exposed. As the cruelty of the artist-provocateur's punishment escalates with the bravery of his defiance, West is utterly compelling.

While Mykel Chambers' costumes are better than you'd expect in a guerrilla enterprise, his set design for the Charenton Asylum is disappointingly bland. Similarly, under the direction of Christy Basa and John Hartness, the women in the cast lack a pinch or two of color and spice. Glenn Hutchinson could be more of a slimeball as the Doctor, and Jeremy Cartee could be less repetitive as the Abbe.

Considering how provocatively they address the urgent issue of artistic freedom, the script and West's bravura outweigh the production's shortcomings. Decisively.

Epic Arts Repertory initiated a laudable new tradition last week, bringing Halloween at the Poe House to the SouthEnd Performing Arts Center. While moonlighting at Theatre Charlotte, Laura Depta directed her husband Stan Peal in an engaging recitation of Hop-Frog, scrupulously adapted to the stage from the macabre tale of "The Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs."Peal slipped effortlessly in and out of the narrator's role, evoking both the callous king and his vengeful jester. A humble bench, a table, a ladder and a suspended rope were the only aids Peal needed to convey the comedy -- and the horror.

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