Noel Coward’s Spirited Comedy
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For many, the thought of being haunted by one’s former spouse might be enough to make them drink heavily. And depending upon the nature of the former spouse, the haunting could be a laugh riot or could cause an actual riot with the current spouse. In the hands of playwright Noel Coward, the master of British wit, we get both possibilities as we relish the humor and complexity of long term commitments, even those that appear to go on into eternity.
The classic comedy Blithe Spirit focuses on successful author and socialite Charles Condomine who must gather material on the world of the occult for his next novel. In an attempt to “pick up some jargon and to make notes on the tricks of the trade,” he engages local medium, Madame Arcati, to conduct a séance at his home in Kent. Hilarity ensues as the offbeat psychic unwittingly summons the spirit of his late wife Elvira who has a plan of her own and who mischievously haunts the writer and wreaks havoc on his current marriage to Ruth.
Filled with razor-sharp dialogue, Blithe Spirit provides the wit and sophistication we expect in a vintage play by Coward. Directing plays infused with this upper-crust, elegant-yet-quirky style is a joy for me. Previous productions I have directed in this genre include Coward’s Hay Fever, last season’s immensely popular musical Anything Goes and the musical On the 20th Century. Each season we strive to provide our students with opportunities to work in a variety of acting and design styles, and this play meets that goal perfectly. This step back into early 20th-century elegance is one of my favorites. And the cast for this production has the perfect combination of experience and comic timing to carry it off.
Charles (Brock Graham) is a likeable and laughably flippant hauteur who becomes increasingly “unhinged” as he is caught in the middle of a power struggle between his two jealous wives – Elvira (Brooke O’Mara) who is visible and audible to him alone (and, of course, to the audience) and Ruth (Laura Laudeman) who at first thinks he’s either drunk or mad, as he converses with the apparition.
While the down-to-earth Ruth is more straight-laced, proper and mature and can’t quite comprehend her husband’s unusual conduct, Elvira is – as advertised! – blithe and spirited as she floats around the room, drapes herself on the furniture and delights in the utter chaos she causes. Madame Arcati (Kate Black) is brimming with bizarre movements and incantations, fluctuating between the serious and the ridiculous until she ultimately admits that she doesn’t have a clue how to exorcise the spirit she unleashed.
I designed the palette for the costumes to differentiate between the living and the dead, with Elvira outfitted in “colorless” silver-grey befitting the afterlife. The living cast members have been costumed with fine fabrics in period styles befitting their social class and, of course, utter eccentricity for the clairvoyant.
The tastefully appointed set, designed by Robert Shoquist, with its English country cottage style, captures the upper-crust elegance of the Condomines. The lighting design by Mark Ridgeway and Nick Lubs and the sound design by Maria Carrillo evoke both the natural and the supernatural elements of the play, creating a visual and aural atmosphere of which we are most proud.
Blithe Spirit opens Sept. 30 and runs for two weekends at IPFW’s Williams Theatre. You will definitely leave your troubles on the door step once you enter the hauntingly hilarious world of the Condomines.