Written by Noel Coward
Directed by Juergen K. Tossmann
The French word esprit is a lovely and multifaceted one. It’s not only the equivalent of English spirit, in the sense of a disembodied life force or that of a pervasive mood, but it’s also translated as mind, and as that delectable product of the mind, wit. The current production of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit at Bunbury Theatre is a shining example of esprit in every sense.
The play derives its title from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Skylark”: Hail to thee, blithe spirit!/Bird thou never wert…. The bird of the poem seems far more ethereal than material; not so the blithe spirit of the play. She is the ghost of Elvira (Susan McNeese Lynch), first wife of writer Charles Condomine (Roger Fristoe). Elvira is summoned to this world when Charles invites famed medium Madame Arcati (Mary Ann Johnson) to hold a séance at his home, hoping to get fodder for his next book along with some good laughs at the expense of Madame Arcati’s “hocus-pocus.” His current wife, Ruth (Claire Sherman), as well as their friends Dr. George Bradman (Tony Prince) and his wife, Violet (Jennifer Levine), are also present. Worldly English folk of the 1950s, none of them anticipate an actual spiritual visitation. Even Madame Arcati is gleefully awed at her own success.
Naturally (and supernaturally), humor ensues in this “improbable farce,” as Coward himself called the work. He is also said to have remarked about Blithe Spirit, “There's no heart in the play. If there was a heart, it would be a sad story.” By this he meant presumably that it remains light throughout, as opposed to delving deep into the lives of complex characters. Be that as it may, the characters are cleverly drawn and skillfully brought to life in this production.
An almost constant patter of witty repartee holds the audience in a sustained state of amusement throughout. Every few minutes, laughter erupts as a situation, a turn of phrase, or a particularly animated facial expression on stage makes it impossible to suppress. Director Tossmann allows the wry verbal humor of Charles, Ruth and Dr. Bradman to be balanced artfully with the broader, more physical comedy expressed in the roles of Violet Bradman and Edith (Teresa Wentzel), the Condomines’ earnest and high-strung maid.
Roger Fristoe brings a good deal of experience to bear in the role of Charles, one which he has performed in three previous productions of the play. Supercilious stuffed shirt, once-and-future rogue, and occasionally hen-pecked husband all rolled into one, he’s able to combine arrogance with a certain vulnerability that makes the character more likable than he would be otherwise. As no-nonsense Ruth Condomine, Claire Sherman’s performance is as clean and sharp as her outstanding diction. She’s smart and self-possessed but not above being jealous of Charles’ first wife even before Elvira appears, and driven to her wits’ end once the spirit does join the household. Charles and Ruth engage in a good deal of deliciously sardonic dialogue, but Dr. Bradman comes out with some zingers, too. His is not one of the larger roles, but Tony Prince does it credit and is especially funny in his interactions with Jennifer Levine as his wife.
The humor in Mrs. Bradman’s character is of the broad variety, and Levine plays it to the hilt. Good natured but more than a little dim, Violet’s shrill, nervous laugh and vapid looks of consternation light up the stage. Also garnering laughter during every one of her entrances and exits is Edith, who struggles with everything she’s got (which may or may not be a whole lot) to master all that is required of her as a servant. Teresa Wentzel’s hilarious facial expressions and frenzied pitter-patter provide a great foil to the (relatively) staid Mr. and Mrs. Condomine.
The kingpin of all the action is Madame Arcati, of course. The splendidly cast Mary Ann Johnson immerses herself in this plum role and does not disappoint. She manages to make Madame Arcati gloriously nutty but entirely sincere, winning us over with surprisingly incisive comments one moment (Dr. Bradman: “I should think…”; Madame Arcati: “You should think, Dr. Bradman, but I’m afraid you don’t”) and cooing to her “ectoplasmic manifestations” the next. Marty Crawley’s costumes strike just the right note for each character and especially for Madame Arcati – what fun it must have been coming up with something appropriately zany, like her flowing garment in rainbow and black or her salmon-accented turban (a must-have for any medium, for sure) paired with velvet overalls.
Like Madame Arcati, Elvira entertains through her witticisms as well as through her physical expression. The exaggerated pout rarely leaves her face as she perches fetchingly on Charles’ sofa, and Lynch’s strong voice lends substance to Elvira’s otherworldly essence. She’s definitely strong-willed in spirit form, just as she was in life, and she’s none too pleased that Charles has taken a new wife since her death. Moreover, she seems to be here to stay, at least until Madame Arcati can figure out how to send her back where she came from. The situation of one man trying to get by with two mutually jealous wives is funny off the bat, but it’s further complicated by the fact that only Charles can see and hear Elvira. With Charles transmitting Elvira’s words to Ruth and sometimes taking editorial liberties, the result is often riotous.
Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in 1941; his insistence on its light and farcical nature can be seen as a conscious turning away from the gravity of the Second World War. Nevertheless, the play met with some initial objections on the part of those who thought it dealt too cavalierly with death at a time in history when the horror of human casualties was omnipresent and when some people had indeed begun to seek solace in spiritualism. The objections did not prevent the play from enjoying enormous success, however, then and since. Juergen Tossmann’s decision to set his production in the 1950s instead of the 1940s may be puzzling at first but makes sense upon reflection. In the popular imagination, the ’50s are so much more blithe of an era than the ’40s. Instead of being distracted by an essentially irrelevant historical context, we’re free to laugh and shake our heads at the amusing pettiness and universal character flaws of humankind.
Susan S. VanDyke’s well-appointed set evokes 1950s' upper-middle-class comfort and taste and is especially conveniently designed for ghostly activity. Lighting Designer Steve Woodring’s work highlights the action without ever devolving into camp where the supernatural is concerned. (I learned recently that it was Woodring who designed Bunbury’s marvelous theatre space on the third floor of the Henry Clay building, where the company has been performing for the last four seasons. What a boon to Louisville’s arts community!)
Without spoiling anything, I will say that Charles Condomine goes from being beleaguered by the demands of two wives to virtually skipping off stage as a single man at the end of Blithe Spirit. How does it come to pass? Go see Bunbury Theatre’s fine production to find out. By way of a hint, however, let me conjure an age-old comedic trope. From Molière’s tours d’esprit through drawing room comedies of a more modern bent, we learn: Never underestimate the servants!
October 14-31, 2011
at the Henry Clay
604 S. Third St.
Entire contents copyright © 2011 Cristina Martin. All rights reserved.