A séance with ambiance: Syracuse Stage’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ levitates Noël Coward’s ghostly farce
Good ensemble acting “raises the spirits” in this satiric but playful discourse on marriage and commitment in well-to-do English society
To hear it from Noël Coward, the phrase ‘til death do us part should be taken more as a wish than a promise.
Charles Condomine, protagonist of Coward’s sardonic fantasy Blithe Spirit, learns the hard way that while marriage may terminate at death, one’s dearly departed spouse is under no obligation to follow suit. Seven years following the untimely death of Charles’s “morally untidy” first wife Elvira, a medium summons her from the hereafter for what will prove to be an extended stay at the Condomine estate in Kent. For Charles and his second wife, Ruth, there will be no peace on earth.
Syracuse Stage’s visually appealing and artistically persuasive production, which opened Friday to a packed house, delivers a faithful rendition of Coward’s “improbable farce” (the playwright’s own words), lampooning marriage and commitment in high society England with an almost perfect balance of mockery and mirth.
Blithe Spirit is first and foremost a comedy — but don’t expect to laugh out loud in the manner of other fantasy-comedies such as Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. The humor in this play is of the clever, witty variety. Except for some light slapstick limited to the role of the maid, Edith, the play plows along in a continuous drone of sardonic writing and unrelenting wit.
The storyline centers on seven characters, principally Charles, Elvira, Ruth and Madame Arcati — the eccentric medium whose séance creates the whole mess and gets the story rolling. Charles has engaged the medium to conduct a séance at his home in order to give him a better perspective on the occult, which he plans to include in his upcoming mystery novel.
Arcati travels on bicycle, enjoys cucumber sandwiches, takes her martinis extra dry and outfits herself in clothes that look as if mixed and matched from the local thrift shop. She observes no social conventions or contemporary standards of any kind. In stark contrast to the other characters in the play, all of whom are bound by codes, rules and expectations, Madame Arcati stands tall as her own person.
The great Margaret Rutherford was the first to play Arcati, a role she later reprised to equally great acclaim in the film adaptation directed by David Lean. (More recently, Angela Lansbury has played the part on Broadway.)
Patricia Hodges plays Arcati in this production with an appropriate amalgam of quirkiness and unconventionality. Indeed, as soon as Hodges steps onstage we know we are in the presence of a certified oddball — and I say this with all due respect. At this early stage in the production’s run, however, Hodges did not appear entirely comfortably acting “silly,” with gesticulations that at times appeared calculated and self-conscious. The character she creates seems real enough, but a role such as this (one of Coward’s most memorable creations) requires the delivery of a virtuoso.
The role of Ruth is played in magnificent fashion by Joey Parsons. When we first see Charles’s second wife the charming socialite is dressed to the nines in an elegant evening gown that remains flattering across every curve of her body. Aided by Parsons’s past study of classical ballet and modern dance, Ruth carries herself across the stage with aristocratic grace, elegance — and effete snobbery befitting her superior breeding, privileged education and elevated British social status.
Ruth is, as they say in affected circles, top draaah. But later, like the picture of Dorian Grey, her actions will begin to dismantle her beauty through increasing degrees of ugliness as she barks orders at the maid, berates Madame Arcati and henpecks her husband at every turn. Then again, what else might you expect from a woman forced to compete for her husband’s affections with an apparition of his first-wife? Parsons’s performance as Ruth was as good as they come, and her transition from a Dr. Jekyll to a Mr. Hyde was entirely believable.
Unlike the mercurial Ruth, who can turn on you at a moment’s notice, the calm and collected Elvira never loses her cool. This makes her even more dangerous. Gisela Chípe, whom some will remember as the perky maid Matilda in the Syracuse Stage production two years ago of The Clean House, captured the spirit (no pun intended) — and the looks — of the vain seductress she plays.
Even before her re-appearance in the physical world, Elvira’s presence is felt through Charles’s wistful recounting of his blissful years with wife number 1. But as we’ll soon learn, it’s the elusive memory of Elvira, and not the actual person, whom Charles still adores. Elvira’s true colors emerge when she occupies the Condomines’ country home, as the cunning little vixen tries to wreck Charles’s marriage, and even worse — arrange a permanent “reunion” with him in the hereafter.
Outfitted in a skimpy satin nightgown (I suspect Costume Designer Suzanne Chesney purchased this from Queen Victoria’s Secret), Chípe slinks around the drawing room as if performing a sultry ritual, adding credence to Charles’s description of her as “morally untidy” (an understatement of classic British proportion, as we learn later in the play). But Chípe manages to capture her character’s manipulative side, and its spoiled child side, as well. This woman would make one helluva Salome.
As the plot’s central figure Charles, Jeremiah Wiggins projects the image of a refined gentleman and successful novelist whose research for an upcoming book is the catalyst for Madame Arcati’s ill-advised séance. Yet underneath the self-assured exterior, Charles has always been dominated by women (an observation made by Ruth in the play).
When we first see Charles he seems perfectly content to be married to a woman who, though not perhaps as sexually engaging as his first wife, nevertheless establishes stability in his life while maintaining the harmony of existence to which he has grown accustomed. But Charles then goes through an emotional wringer, emerging in a state of total confusion at the unexpected re-emergence of Elvira, then returning to complacency and a renewed sense of control in the new ménage-à-trois arrangement with his two wives, then back again to chaos as he finds himself now dominated by both wives.
Wiggins captured the changing faces of Charles’s predicaments and remained in character through each wild turn of events. His diction was crisp and his voice carried well throughout the performance, and his British accent never showed signs of fading into the vernacular.
The three smaller roles were remarkably strong in this production. As the hapless maid, Edith, Antonieta Pereira (a senior at the Syracuse University Department of Drama) captured the lion’s share of laughs, scurrying uneasily around the stage juggling dishes, glasses and plates under the scornful direction of Ruth. Curiously, Pereira looked surprised during her curtain call — as if the enthusiastic applause and loud shouts of approval had been unexpected.
Elizabeth Ingram played her small but colorful part as Ruth’s friend, Mrs. Bradman, to perfection. Ingram is a wonderful character actress, and her solid British accent and wide-intervalled vocal inflections injected a convincing dose of Britannia into the production. As her onstage husband Dr. Bradman, Curzon Dobell proved a worthy complement to the handsome ensemble of actors.
If Blithe Spirit has an Achilles’ heel, it’s surely the play’s excessive length. At a hefty three hours, Coward’s “improbable comedy” struggles to sustain the laughs into the final act, and some of the play’s absurdist humor seems dated. As John Gielgud wisely observed, “it was a good joke, but he spun it out too much.”
Director Michael Barakiva may not have found a fix for Coward’s lengthy indulgence, but he did manage to keep the pacing of the action moving forward and kept all eyes focused on the stage throughout the evening. (Of course, Elvira’s skimpy outfit didn’t hurt). The irresistible period set by John Iacovelli, faithfully English from top-to-bottom, looked especially inviting. During the first act I would gladly have shelled out $20 for one of Charles’s “very dry” martinis, and by the second act I was prepared to submit a purchase offer on the house.
It’s difficult to imagine that Blithe Spirit began its run in London during World War II at the time of the Blitz. But the fact that the play enjoyed a then-record run of 1,997 consecutive performances suggests that in 1941, at the height of the war, there was a desperate need for comic relief. The original playbill program notes carried this piece of advice:
“If an air raid warning be received during the performance the audience will be informed from the stage . . . those desiring to leave the theatre may do so but the performance will continue.”
Yes, Virginia, the show must go on. And this handsome Syracuse Stage production will do so only through October 6.
What: Blithe Spirit, written by Noël Coward and directed by Michael Barakiva
Who: Syracuse Stage
Where: Archbold Theatre, Syracuse Stage Complex, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse
Performance reviewed: Friday September 20, 2013
Remaining dates: Plays through October 6
Length: About three hours, with two intermissions
Tickets: Call (315) 443-3275 or http://syracusestage.org
Family guide: Adult situations, adult humor