For its fifth production of the 2006-2007 Season, co-directors Vincent O’Neill and Brian Cavanagh have chosen to stage the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s second production of Noël Coward’s revenge-of-the wives, Blithe Spirit. The script’s the same but the change of venue from a decade ago (Calumet Arts Café) to the Andrews Theatre—with its special-effects challenged “stage-in-the-square”—has produced extra problems that more traditional spaces solve with wings, scrims and trap doors. For the most part, the production team (headed by Cavanagh in his more customary roles as technical director, set and lighting designer) delivers credible solutions to the conceit of Coward’s characters who are summoned back from the “other side” to prod, punish and provoke the living.
Coward’s brilliant play was born from difficulty. While 1941 London was being blitzed, he and companion Joyce Carey took refuge from the bombing in Port Merion, Wales. As chronicled in the debonair writer’s diary, they spent much of their time “discussing financial troubles, which are considerable. Also discussed play as possible solution. Title Blithe Spirit. Very gay, superficial comedy about a ghost. Feel it may be good.” A week later it was done. On July 2, 1941, with Coward directing and a cast that included Cecil Parker and the legendary Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati, the “Improbable Farce in Three Acts” began its storied life at the Picadilly Theatre. The living room tonic to Hitler’s Blitzkrieg has kept the world in stitches—no matter what present day tragedy occurs—ever since.
Country squire and novelist Charles Condomine (Christian Brandjes, who seems quite at home in his loose-fitting smoking jacket and oozes his lines with lecherous charm) has invited semi-professional clairvoyant, Madame Arcati (Josephine Hogan) to a dinner and séance party so as to surreptitiously research a character for his next book (“jargon” and a “few tricks of the trade”). His second wife, Ruth (Kristen Tripp Kelley: hopefully her timing and pace will improve during the run) seems uncertain of her martini-shaking husband’s unconditional love and fidelity. And with good reason. “If you're trying to compile an inventory of my sex life, I feel it only fair to warn you that you've omitted several episodes. I shall consult my diary and give you a complete list after lunch,” admits Charles during one heated exchange.
To flesh out the dinner table, Dr. Bradman (Gerry Maher) along with his alcohol-intake controller and wife, Violet (Kathleen Betsko Yale captures the tenor, tone and delicious wit in a manner that one hopes will become contagious to her colleagues) join the fray. Food, drink and introductions are served up by the new maid, Edith (Susan Drozd, whose expressions speak hilarious volumes), even as she dashes from pillar to post with a nearly unstoppable frenzy of the damned.
Before you can say “call for the dead,” Elvira—Charles’ seven-years “passed over” first bride rematerializes as the result of Arcati’s contact with her twelve-year-old control, Daphne. Trouble is, only Charles can see her! In this central role, Dawn Woollacott teases and allures her frantically wayward husband most convincingly. Still, had her costume been closer to the called-for gray hue than virginal wedding-dress white, her believability factor might have increased.
The script abounds with visual humour, much of which comes off beautifully (the cigarette and cigar routines amuse with every puff). Yet Kelley’s purposely misdirected stares too often totally avoid the centre of what’s come to her attention and the ICTC’s stage elves swing into view at just the wrong moment during the spirits-are-rattling-the-double-French-doors gag.
All three acts use the same set, in itself a marvel of style and detail. All the more reason to alter the drinks trolley as days pass by—such an easy way of reinforcing the passage of time. Truly the devil’s in the details in a production that demands so much suspension of disbelief if the multi-layered satire is to fire on all cylinders.
It’s a long, wordy show that Broadway union rules have forced other producers to trim. O’Neill/Cavanagh avoid any gutting, but have allowed their talented charges to spurt out their lines so quickly that the subtle, discreet jokes (Charles: I remember her spiritual attractiveness—and her spiritual integrity which was nil … Ruth: You can’t remember something that was nil.) fly by unsavoured, unheard and unlaughed. Madame Arcati’s description of her cycling philosophy could be equally adapted by the cast: “Steady rhythm—that’s what counts. Once you get the knack of it you never look back—on you get and away you go.”
Wise words indeed. If adopted to Coward’s timeless ingredients of sharp bickering and infidelity thwarted passion, Blithe Spirit could engender riots of laughter and oodles of savvy understanding, giving verisimilitude indeed to the show’s recurring song, “Always.” JWR