Review | Blithe Spirit: sparking sophistication

The Guthrie, through January 14

Charles Condomine, Heidi Armbuster and Ella Monte-Brown in BLITHE SPIRIT. Photo by Dan Norman.

Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, now at the Guthrie, begins as the upper-class English couple Charles and Ruth Condomine are about to host a dinner party. He’s an established writer. She manages the household which includes a maid of uncommon exuberance. As the Condomines fuel themselves with pre-party gin martinis, they discuss Charles’ first wife, Elvira, an apparent beauty who died suddenly twelve years earlier. It’s clear that the first Mrs. Condomine remains forever young in Charles’ mind with her urn and photograph prominently displayed on the mantle. Then the guests arrive.

As it turns out, the dinner party is a kind of ruse, set up by Charles to inveigle the local medium, Madame Arcati, to hold a late night séance. Unknown to Arcati, Charles is certain that she’s a fraud; he only wants to glean from her a bit of jargon for the mystery novel he is currently writing. The formidable Arcati (deliciously played by Sally Wingert) turns the tables on the doubters when she summons the ghost of Charles’ first wife.

British comedy often centers on respectable people like the Condomines who desperately try to remain well-bred and responsible even as life becomes impossible to manage. Blithe Spirit is a fine example, sprinkled with Coward’s witty dialogue, his signature bated and barbed repartee and characters who cling to normalcy in the face of impending chaos.

As the show proceeds, more than the wall between the living and the dead crumbles. Director David Ivers (who helmed Coconuts at the Guthrie two years ago) keeps the pacing brisk. He allows the Condomines’ heated arguments, which now include Elvira, to rise to full boil before turning down the heat just enough only to allow the steam to rise once again. Ruth (engaging Heidi Armbruster) understandably wants her predecessor out of their mansion while the tough but charming Elvira (perfectly mischievous Ella Monte-Brown) refuses to leave. Charles (suave Quinn Mattfeld) desperately attempts to steer a diplomatic course between the living and the dearly departed spouses.

This is an all-hands on production that projects a single, unified effect. Everything in the show from the striped wallpaper to Ruth’s evening dress echoes the regimented lifestyle the Condomines wish to maintain. The set (Jo Winiarski designer) is colored in a lovely palette of pale blues shading to grey. A false proscenium arch, complete with drapery, frames the stage and the right and left walls are placed at an angle bringing the large McGuire stage down to usable, drawing room size.

Costumes (by Meg Neville) are inspired creations from the early 1940’s. Ruth’s tight-fitting bodice and flowing skirt, contrasts wonderfully with Mme. Arcati’s dazzling multi-layered Indian raja outfit complete with turban and tassels. Later, when Elvira enters in a sparkling silver dressing gown and sequined slippers, with her face covered in clown-white make-up, she makes a shimmering ectoplasmic apparition. From beginning to end, Xavier Pierce does a masterly job of lighting the set. A stage ghost never looked so believable as when his lighting scheme envelops Elvira’s pale face and dress.

The current show sometimes overplays a few scenes, begging a little too hard for laughs, but this isn’t England and American audiences like their farces broad and their laugh lines signaled in advance. In either case the sense of disruption shines through.

Amid all the fun in this very good show, it is sobering to consider that Coward wrote Blithe Spirit after fleeing London because his own flat had been bombed in the WWII blitzkrieg. When the show premiered on London’s West End in 1941 this sophisticated, ‘whistling past the graveyard’ farce obviously struck a funny nerve. It does now, too.

 

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