Think of Noel Coward’s drawing room farces in which Brits in silk smoking jackets and slinky Art Deco evening gowns exchange martini-infused banter. Not only have performances of these plays become an endangered species, some say, but Coward’s works have begun to slip into obscurity.
We’re fortunate that has not happened around here, however. Circle Theatre, a troupe that’s had great success producing Coward’s comedies, is mounting Hay Fever this summer, and as we speak, Festival Theatre has a sharp, engaging production of Blithe Spirit playing at historic Pleasant Home mansion.
Arguably, Blithe Spirit is Noel Coward’s most popular comedy. Surprisingly, the debonair master of satire and sophistication penned this play during one of the darkest hours of British history-the London Blitz. The show provided the perfect zany distraction from the horror and devastation of World War II. Once the production opened in 1941 it broke box office records that still stand.
Actually the plotline about a medium attempting psychic telepathy with the deceased was fairly topical at the time. Many bereaved families sought solace from spiritualism in the wake of so much wartime loss.
In Blithe Spirit, a pompous but animated novelist named Charles (Jack Hickey) hosts a séance in his home as research on the supernatural. Hoping to learn the tricks of the psychic trade, he light-heartedly invites a quirky clairvoyant named Madame Arcati (Connie Anderka) and a few neighbors to dinner. Arcati is often played as a dotty dowager but here she’s a funky, highly energized young eccentric with short red hair and a swirling peasant skirt. Anderka is a riot as the loquacious, over-the-top medium.
Charles, remarried after the death of his first wife, is more or less happy with his starchy current spouse, Ruth (Christine Stulik). Or is he?
No one in the dinner party actually believes in spiritualism-at least at first. Charles is especially skeptical of Madame Arcati’s ability to reach beyond the grave. But then the inept medium somehow actually summons the ghost of Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Katherine Keberlein.)
Slinky, sexy, selfish Elvira refuses to retreat back to the spirit world. But only Charles can see or hear her, and she wastes no time in creating all manner of mischief. Elvira is determined to show Charles just what he’s been missing.
Coward’s comedy becomes a hilarious supernatural love triangle with eccentric characters, delicious plot twists, and the playwright’s signature witty repartee.
As you might imagine, Ruth, the jealous second wife, at first thinks her husband is drunk or insane, since she cannot see her ghostly rival. But she becomes really distraught once she recognizes the re-appearance of Elvira who clearly still has a hold on her husband.
In true Noel Coward fashion, the play has a highly stylized tone that calls for fast-paced verbal ping-pong performances. This Festival Theater cast is certainly up to the challenge. Their British accents are also strong and consistent.
Director David Mink and his fine ensemble energize the vintage play, keeping it funny and accessible from start to finish. The show seems perfectly paced.
Rebecca Cox is a hoot playing the dim-witted, bungling maid who cannot stop scampering around, performing all her domestic tasks at a sprint, no matter how hard she tries.
Playing a stuffy doctor and his chatterbox wife are Brian Simmons (who recently portrayed the title role in the Jerry Springer musical at Bailiwick) and Kimberly Logan.
This Festival Theatre performance at Pleasant Home does not take place “in the round” this time but rather with the audience seated on low risers in the living room while the actors are “on stage” in the spacious adjoining dining room area dressed to suggest a luxurious English country house. Sightlines are good and one is always fairly close to the performers. In fact, I was distracted every time I noticed several safety pins in the back of one actress’ dress, apparently holding the thing together. (Speaking of costumes, it boggles the mind that such upper crust Coward characters would be wearing the same gowns several days in a row.)
Robert W. Behr is the stage manager. Kyle Irwin created the sound design that was especially impressive during the playful poltergeist interludes.