Review: Noel Coward farce of battling spouses still strong decades later
Cape Cod Times – Barbara Clark
In 1941, playwright Coward’s funny farce “Blithe Spirit” proved just the ticket to offer comic relief from the grim realities of an expanding World War II. This confection of wit and words was perfect because it didn’t require audiences to think too deeply about the characters, or work to acquire sympathy for their antics, but simply to sit back and enjoy the comic plight of a clueless husband, increasingly beset by two wives ― his all-too-current spouse, as well as the ghost of his late former wife, who has materialized from the afterlife after a séance gone wrong. This play’s blithe spirit broke box office records in the 1940s, and continues to delight audiences in the present day.
Name of show: “Blithe Spirit”
Written by: Noel Coward (1941), directed by Lynne Johnson, performed by Eventide Theatre Company in Dennis.
What it’s about: Dysfunctional, be-turbaned spiritualist Madame Arcati (a tour-de-force as played by Kathleen Larson Day) accidentally opens a portal to the afterlife during a séance at the home of writer Charles Condomine (the superb Zack Johnson), materializing his late first wife, Elvira (Shannen Dando). She sets out to disrupt his current marriage to Ruth (Rebecca Riley) in any way possible, eventually hatching a plan that may mean he’ll soon join her (forever) in the spirit world. Both women are all-too-visible to Charles, and their presence has thrown his life into a tizzy.
The play turns on lively physical comedy and witty, back-and-forth dialogue, as Elvira and Ruth wreak havoc on the hapless Charles. Arcati’s incomplete mastery of her spiritual powers results in pandemonium, as Charles makes disastrous attempts to mediate between his petulant wives.
See it or not: Coward’s talents lay in creating the height of early 20th-century chic: polished, witty comedies that both depict and satirize the self-appointed sophisticates of the time. “Blithe Spirit” presents a stage combo that’s both cerebral and highly physical. It’s flippant and funny, cloaked inside the trappings of a stuffy drawing room crowd.
Superb direction by Johnson showcases impeccable performances from a versatile, talented cast. The dialogue just pops. Riley nails the role of the faux-sophisticated Ruth, while Dando vamps it up as the otherworldly Elvira, projecting a very earthy brand of sexiness.
Their efforts target poor Charles, who’s in way over his head with these two sparring women. Johnson never steps out of character, amping up the increasingly frazzled Charles with a range of hilarious mannerisms, and a dead-on delivery of wry, mordant wit. Not to mention the wacko maid, Edith (Madison Mayer, who turns out to be central), and fine supporting characters Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Alex Lucchesi, Liz Argo).
Highlights: The high spirits, zany action and captivating stage presence of Day’s Madame Arcati form the whipped cream topping for this delicious battle of the sexes. Day is its comic fulcrum, attired in sparkly turban, red satiny skirt and clunky argyle socks. She erupts with glee, puzzlement or frustration, changing the quality of her voice at will to express confusion or determination, supremely confident in her zany efforts to interact with the spirit world.
In the show’s more famous international productions, Arcati has been played by the likes of Margaret Rutherford and Angela Lansbury – hefty shoes to fill. Day makes the role her own, creating a unique persona for the Eventide stage.
Worth noting: The stage set is worth viewing for its own beauty and affinity to the era portrayed, while sound, ghostly stage effects, lighting and gorgeous costuming all add to this gem of a production.If you go: Performances of “Blithe Spirit” are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, with 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays, through Feb. 11. (Feb. 4 sold out). Performed on the Gertrude Lawrence Stage at Dennis Union Church, 713 Main St., Dennis. $31. Box office: 508-233-2148; more information at www.eventidearts.org.