Shining Stars, Old and New
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Shining Stars, Old and New

Angela Lansbury delights in Blithe Spirit, while Sara Farb does an impressive double act in R-E-B-E-C-C-A.

Angela Lansbury brings her Broadway and London triumph to Toronto, playing Madame Arcati in Noël Coward’s supernatural comedy Blithe Spirit at the Princess of Wales  Photo by Robert J  Saferstein

Angela Lansbury brings her Broadway and London triumph to Toronto, playing Madame Arcati in Noël Coward’s supernatural comedy Blithe Spirit at the Princess of Wales. Photo by Robert J. Saferstein.

Blithe Spirit
Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King Street West)
Runs to March 15
4 Stars

Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Avenue)
Runs to March 1
4 Stars

When you’re a beloved star with a long and illustrious history, like the 89-year-old Angela Lansbury, you step on the stage wearing your past achievements like a massive peacock’s tail. It’s so bright and distracting that it can be difficult to see the actress in front of it.

When Lansbury makes her first entrance in Blithe Spirit, the classic Noël Coward comedy now playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre, we’re blinded by our memories of her. For the TV-watching masses, she’s always Jessica Fletcher, the author-sleuth of the long-running Murder, She Wrote. For Broadway-musical fans, she’s Mame, Mama Rose, and that sinister pie-maker Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Movie buffs, meanwhile, know her for a slew of memorable roles, from the ruthlessly scheming mother in the byzantine political thriller The Manchurian Candidate to the cozy voice of Mrs. Potts the teapot in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

Her challenge, at this point, is to make us forget all that and dazzle us instead with her performance in this particular play. Fortunately, her role in Blithe Spirit, the eccentric medium Madame Arcati, is tailored to be flashy. Lansbury’s silly psychic enters in a maroon frock and bejeweled pillbox hat, glittering with ornaments like a small Christmas tree, and wearing her ginger hair in the kind of coiled braids favoured by Princess Leia of Star Wars. When she prepares to go into a trance, she does a bizarre little dance, poking her fingers in the air as if trying to rouse the spirits slumbering in the ether. But she isn’t completely dotty—in fact, she’s about as shrewd and no-nonsense as a spiritualist can be. And like her character, Lansbury doesn’t indulge in any unnecessary folderol—she gets straight down to business, playing the part with energy and precision.

It’s a part Lansbury knows backwards, having performed it to Tony-winning acclaim on Broadway in 2009, and again in London’s West End last year. Toronto is seeing a remount of the London production—its only Canadian stop on a short North American tour that began in December in L.A. and ends next month in Washington, D.C. For added lustre, the show’s leading man is also something of a television celebrity: Charles Edwards, who plays Lady Edith’s editor-turned-lover Michael Gregson on Downton Abbey.

The cast of Blithe Spirit includes, left to right, Sandra Shipley, Charles Edwards, Susan Louise O’Connor, Angela Lansbury, Charlotte Parry, and Simon Jones   Photo by Joan Marcus

The cast of Blithe Spirit includes, left to right, Sandra Shipley, Charles Edwards, Susan Louise O’Connor, Angela Lansbury, Charlotte Parry, and Simon Jones. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Edwards stars as author Charles Condomine, who has invited Madame Arcati to his home in Kent with the surreptitious intent of observing her techniques as research for a novel. But instead of furnishing inspiration, Madame Arcati manages to conjure up the ghost of Elvira (Jemima Rooper), Charles’s late wife. Only Charles can see Elvira, which leads his current wife, Ruth (Charlotte Parry), to believe he’s going mad. Much confusion and various twists ensue in what Coward wryly called “a light comedy about death,” written to divert audiences during the grim days of the Second World War. And it still diverts, thanks to clever plotting and a wit as bone-dry as the Martinis tossed back by its characters—even if the playwright’s light touch can’t quite disguise that same pessimistic view of marriage found in his earlier Private Lives.

Director Michael Blakemore, who staged both the Broadway and London productions, faithfully re-creates the kind of glossy, breezy entertainment we associate with Coward. Simon Higlett’s comfortable country-house set is delightfully detailed from the roof beams to the wood-burning fireplace—and primed for a thorough shaking-up by spectral inhabitants late in the play. The acting is mostly first-rate. Edwards is superb as the self-satisfied Charles, while Parry skilfully combines a cool exterior and curdled disposition as the jealous Ruth. Rooper’s Elvira, however, comes off more like a mischievous sprite than a real disembodied threat—it may be odd to say of someone playing an apparition, but her performance lacks substance.

Susan Louise O’Connor as Edith, the Condomines’ overzealous maid, is also a bit disappointing. She’s too obviously funny, as if she were constantly aware that her function is to provide cheap laughs. But Lansbury’s medium has fine foils in Simon Jones as the skeptical Dr. Bradman and Sandra Shipley as his cheerfully unthinking wife.

Still, it’s Lansbury who will have people flocking to the Princess of Wales—as well they should. Often when you see elderly legends that are no longer at the top of their game, you end up respectfully applauding who they once were rather than what they’re actually doing onstage. Lansbury, however, gives a canny comic performance that we’d enjoy regardless of her age or reputation. For a star in her twilight years, she stills sparkles brightly.

Sara Farb performs her one woman show R E B E C C A  Photo by Michael Cooper

Sara Farb performs her one-woman show R-E-B-E-C-C-A. Photo by Michael Cooper.

If you want to catch a much younger actress whose star is just rising, make your way down to Theatre Passe Muraille. There, in its tiny Backspace, 27-year-old Sara Farb does some remarkable acting in her self-written solo show, R-E-B-E-C-C-A. This very personal play was inspired by Farb’s younger sister, who is developmentally delayed. It’s a funny, unsentimental, and thought-provoking piece that contrasts two kinds of mental disability to startling effect.

When we first see Farb’s Rebecca—in a faux home video—she is celebrating her 18th birthday but behaving like a mercurial three-year-old: when she erupts into a tantrum over not getting a second slice of cake, she’s sent away for a “time out.” Rebecca, we eventually learn, was born seven weeks prematurely, which may account for her developmental handicap. But there is another Rebecca, also turning 18, who at first appears to be your typical surly, cynical teenager. She watches the child-like Rebecca and her fellow “‘tards”—as she cruelly calls them—arrive at her Jewish summer camp, likening them to the dim-witted Troggs in World of Warcraft, her favourite online game.

As you soon realize, this moody girl is the Rebecca who might have been—born on time but, ironically, no better off. She suffers from severe depression, refuses to take her Prozac, and self-mutilates. As a writer, Farb doesn’t make her intentions clear, but as an actress she has us comparing the eternal innocence of her real Rebecca and the vitriolic negativity of her imagined one. Needless to say, it’s the first Rebecca, the gawky, splay-fingered girl caught between a child’s emotions and a young woman’s hormones, who utterly captivates us. Farb’s embodiment of her sister is amusing, effervescent, and loving, and she makes us fall in love with her, too.

The show is sensitively directed by Richard Greenblatt, who gives its surreal scenario an eerie, sci-fi feel with the help of Rebecca Picherack’s lighting and Reza Jacobs’s score. Farb played Cordelia to Colm Feore’s King Lear at Stratford last year and she’ll be taking on her first major role at the festival this season when she stars in The Diary of Anne Frank. If R-E-B-E-C-C-A is any indication, she should be terrific.