Spirited Performance
Coward comedy entertains.

Holiday Highs
A jug of wine, and love.

Auto-Dependent Auckland
Clean and green New Zealand needs a transit plan.

Spirited Performance
Coward comedy entertains.

Willamette Repertory Theatre's production of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit opens on the Condomine couple, caustic, bossy Ruth (Lyn Burg) and suave, magnetic Charles (William Mark Hulings) preparing to have another couple, the Bradmans (Dan Pegoda and Sharon Sless), over for dinner and a seance. Charles is a novelist, and for his upcoming work he needs to do some hands-on research. He and Ruth have invited the local loon Madame Arcati (Marti Stevens Byers) over for the evening, in hopes that she is a delusional fraud like the character Charles is planning for his book.

Shortly before everyone is set to arrive, Charles and Ruth discuss how to go about instructing their inexhaustibly energetic new maid, Edith (played boisterously by Victoria Blake) over a few dry sherries. They flirt cynically with one another, entertain notions of Madame Arcati making a fool of herself in front of their guests, and debate on Charles' first wife, Elvira, dead seven years.


As the scene is rather long, it could have easily become boring if it weren't for the taut chemistry between Charles and Ruth — their back-and-forth banter is effective and human. We get the idea that this argument is routine. An insecure Ruth has complained about Elvira many times before, and an adamant Charles is used to explaining himself.

Burg is quite good as Ruth. We're annoyed with her when she's overbearing and at times almost repellent, but we're also sympathetic. Hulings also allows the audience to feel sympathy and understanding when it comes to Charles' individual feelings, but also criticism and disapproval when those feelings manifest themselves into actions.

The Bradmans — gentility played to perfection by veteran Eugene actors Pegoda and Sless — arrive just as Charles and Ruth are making up from their little spat, and are shortly joined by thoroughly erratic Madame Arcati. Marti Stevens Byers, who has played Madame Arcati before but is a newcomer to the Willamette Rep stage, is a comic genius and relentlessly coaxes belly laughs from the audience.

After an eerie seance, during which Madame Arcati goes into a trance and then slumps unconscious into an armchair, Charles hears Elvira's disembodied voice speaking to him. Charles is alarmed and skeptical, but no one else in the circle can hear her, and after Charles' first fearful outburst, Ruth convinces the guests that Charles is merely joking with them. He insists that he is not, and implores them to listen for Elvira's voice, but no one else witnesses this strange phenomenon.

After Madame Arcati comes to and the lights have been turned back on, Charles nervously fibs and says that indeed, Ruth spoke the truth, he was simply playing a trick on everyone. Ruth and the Bradmans laugh it off, but Madame Arcati is not so sure, and insists that she felt something strange happening during the seance. A few minutes after everyone leaves the Condomines' home for the evening, Elvira herself (the perfectly ethereal Susan Tate) materializes and thus, the comedy of errors begins.

There is an appealing, sitcommish humor about watching the scenes that follow: Charles can see and hear Elvira, but no one else can, and this predicament leads to a variety of hilarious escapades and misunderstandings — especially when it comes to the relationship between Charles and Ruth.

Truly, Blithe Spirit is a visual pleasure. Scenic designer Michael Ganio has created a beautiful set, chock full of historical detailing and color coordinated furnishings, all brought to life under the flawless lighting of Michael A. Peterson's design. Costume designer Denise Damico has dressed the actors handsomely and in costumes fitting their personalities (although the ghost makeup is a bit garish), and director Hans Christofferson has done an excellent job directing his cast of talented, experienced performers.

Though I am not a fan of Noel Coward's plays in general, and find his work dated, clichéd and sexist, Willamette Rep's production of Blithe Spirit was anything but tiresome. The cast and crew offer a lively, entertaining, and (forgive me) spirited show.

Blithe Spirit only runs through Dec. 15 at the Hult Center, so catch it while you can.

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Holiday Highs
A jug of wine, and love.

Hollies and jollies? Mistletoe and candy canes? Red-suited, white-bearded chubbos doling out goodies for happy boys and girls? I'm just not gettin' there this year.

Got the deep Xmas blues. Too many pals are losing jobs/homes/hopes while scrawny chickenhawks strut around playing commanders-in-chief, gleefully blasting women, kids, old folks and other 'soft targets,' inflicting 'collateral damage' to chalk-up on their scoreboards, see who's winning or losing. Occasionally, just to torture myself, I'll tune in Michael Savage on KKKUGN, listen to hateful, racist babble of neo-fascist "conservatives." When Kat catches me, she usually dishes up a firm whap on the back of my head, reminds me what idiots fascists are, tells me to come back to real people. I try, for the sake of the season, for the memories, for the dreams.

It's all weird, because I'm normally a complete Christmas google-head. Oh, I know it's mostly a retailers' shuck, a way to hustle corporate geegaws off shelves and boost consumer debt. And I know the holiday has about nada to do with Christ, that Christ was born in spring, not December 25, that early Christian 'fathers' did all they could for centuries to suppress this 'pagan' celebration until they had to cave in and twist history to capture a feeling they couldn't destroy. But even knowing all that, I've always loved giving presents (OK, getting some, too). I like sneaking around, figuring out which little pretty will tinkle somebody's bells, stashing it until I can fluff it with tissue and wrap it in bright-colored papers and bows, then squirm on the couch while the giftee unravels this mystery, token of my love. Smiles, kisses, thank-yous. What a zap.

Rich or poor, somehow it works, wonders to behold. Brief memoir: Christmas, year I was 16, the shattered remains of our family living in a one-bedroom duplex, Second Street, Reno. We were stone broke, no car, barely eating; my step-father, Jeff, and my mother both slaved as nurses' aides at Washoe Medical Center, earning chump wages. I was janitoring at a funky wedding chapel. Mom, belly swollen, eight-months pregnant with my brother, sobbed, had to have some kind of tree. Jeff and I trekked along the Truckee River, found a fir-shaped branch of alder driftwood, hauled it home, wrapped each branch in cotton gauze Jeff had boosted from the hospital, cut out 'ornaments ' of colored paper, strapped them with surgical tape, dangled them on surgical nylon. Jeff 'found' a string of lights; we didn't ask where. One large gumdrop made the 'star.' Beautiful. We traded one present each, no idea now what they were; the tree was Christmas. It was nothing, it was enough, warmed the whole house, put smiles on our faces.

I'm back, just felt a wave rush from heart to head. Now I'm ready to talk about wine. Good thing, too — in fact, just in time.

'Cause look who just strolled through the office door, draped in full Jolly Fatguy regalia, red zoot suit, white faux-fur trim, bells on hat, patent leather boots and belt, fluffy white beard. The round tummy is genuine Jello. The big bag emits glassy clinks and clanks. His ho-ho-ho sounds more like heunh-heunh-heunh.

"Mole," I choke out, "you're a real saint."

"Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Whatup Kwanzaa! Soooper Solstice! We gotcher veritas in vino!" He rolls over to my desk, starts hauling bottles from his apparently bottomless bag, whips out a corkscrew, hands it to me, pulls out ice bucket (with ice), ceramic green Christmas tree (with lights), menorah (with candles), wine glasses, wine towels, little electric train (with tracks). I pull corks.

Rattle and clank of elevator, clatter in the hall, enter ensemble: Molly as Mizz Claus; T-Dub and Syl, Big Juan, Treetop (with tree), Peter Poet and Soho Sandy, Jeff and Kathy, Mouse in tux (with tails). More friends and family stream in. Party ensues. Wine report follows:

Huge supplies and a staggering world economy have resulted in tumbling wine prices, meaning good juice and good values for consumers, sorta bad news/good news thing.

Festive bubblies: Why buy cheap schlock when so much yummy sparkling wine is available for a few dollars more? Case in point, Secret House 1994 Brut Natural ($13), flavorful and food-friendly, with round baked-bread flavors. Made by our neighbors, Ron and Patti Chappel, of Veneta, the wine is fine and the money stays home; what's the question?

Looking to make a French impression sans Parisian budget? Find Berlene 1999 Blanquette de Limoux ($10), frothy and zesty, lemony freshness in the mouth, delish with appetizers like smoked salmon.

Committed to California? Chandon Blanc de Noirs ($14), rich red-fruit flavors, intensely active bubbles, lovely.

White nights: Roast turkey loves fresh white wines like riesling (LaVelle, Girardet) and gewurztraminer (Amity, Evesham Wood), but our pal Larry Malmgren swears by Spain. Big Al at Kiva offers Serra da Estrela 2000 Albarino ($12), creamy mouthful of flavors like ripe pears with mineral notes.

A steal, Pepperwood Grove 2000 Viognier ($7): say vee-o-nyeh, get floral aromas, round, creamy white, a match for fresh crab.

Gotthavit Chehalem 2000 Chardonnay ($14.50), one of Oregon's best labels, bright fruit flavors, vanilla accents, perfect balance, lingering finish.

Wicked red: Torre dei Beati 2001 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo ($13), deep purple, intense flavors like blackberries, pepper, well-balanced blockbuster.

I scan the room, blues long gone. See the colors now, and know: This high holy day has naught to do with stuff, all to do with love, all we really need. Happiness to you, yours.

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Auto-Dependent Auckland
Clean and green New Zealand needs a transit plan.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND—If it's possible to fall in love with a country, I have. It's New Zealand, a small, bisected Pacific island country with a whole lot of sheep (more per capita than anywhere else in the world), a nuclear-free policy and Zero Waste goals. New Zealand has a population of just under four million people, swollen by immigration from Asia and the Pacific islands.

I loved the hospitable people of New Zealand, their humor and warmth, and the fascinating environmental variations in this California-sized (and shaped) place, from the temperate North Island with its green coastal plain reminiscent of England to its partly alpine South Island, with lush native forests and so-called Southern Alps.

Nearly a third of New Zealand's people live in its largest city, Auckland, whose population is expected to double in the next 50 years. I preferred the less-congested South Island, which has less than a million people. OK, you're saying, this is a car column, when are we going to get to the cars? Here we go, New Zealand has the second-highest rate of car ownership in the world (guess who's first?) and in Auckland that translates to nearly one car for every two people. Cheap Japanese imports make car ownership available to nearly everyone. The country's nearly as car-dependent as the U.S., and only two percent of Auckland's population uses public transportation — one of the lowest usage figures in the world, even lower than Los Angeles.   

In the 1950s, some 58 percent of Auckland's commuters used public transit, and as Green Party Member of Parliament Sue Kedgley points out, a far-sighted plan was developed to electrify the rail lines and build a subway that would be integrated with the existing bus system. Instead, the plan was shelved in favor of a California-designed motorway grid that was only partly completed, leaving gridlock as the inevitable result. Today, 40 percent of Auckland's land area is devoted to cars, and air quality has drastically deteriorated (the nitrogen dioxide levels are comparable to London's).

Eighteen months ago, frustrated Aucklanders elected a new mayor, John Banks, who campaigned on the promise that he would end their woes by completing the old highway plan. I met Banks and his lively transit chief, Greg McKeown, at the mayor's office on Queen Street and I was pleased to see that the city does have plans that extend beyond motorways, including a possible light rail system and plans for faster bus service using cleaner hybrid electric buses. McKeown wants a free shuttle bus for downtown Auckland, modeled in part on the electric bus shuttle in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Unfortunately, Auckland needs to study another model: Boston, where a relatively simple highway plan has spiraled into one of the world's largest public works projects, jumping from $2.5 billion to more than $15 billion and sucking up every transit dollar in Massachusetts. Auckland plans to spend only about $600 million, but highway costs are hard to contain. There may simply be no money left when city planners discover the truism that it's impossible to build out of congestion.

What usually happens? Look at L.A., where the highway grid was completed long ago. Development and opportunistic drivers are attracted by new clear motorways and quickly increase vehicle miles traveled, leading the roads as congested as before.

The Louis Vuitton Cup races were on when I was in Auckland, and the port restaurants were crammed with tourists enjoying one of the city's few car-free zones. As the Greens' Kedgley points out, Europe's pedestrian-friendly smart growth model is the best one for Auckland. "Cities like Amsterdam are bustling with pavement cafes, street entertainers and people enjoying themselves," she says. Exactly. New Zealand is for the most part a clean and green country; let's hope it hasn't met its match in the omnipresent automobile.

Jim Motavalli is editor of E The Environmental Magazine. Questions or comments?