Sunday, June 2, 2013

Blithe Spirit a delightful quirky drawing room romp

Blithe Spirit
Stratford Festival
Written by Noel Coward
Directed by Brian Bedford
Avon Theatre
Runs until October 20
Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes (with two intervals of 15 and 10 minutes)
Tickets: 1-800-567-1600 or online 
Review by Geoff Dale

So what can you say about a play that’s been produced by countless theatre troupes around the globe for the past 72 years, won an Oscar for best cinematic special effects in 1945 and ended up as Noel Coward’s most popular work, despite the fact it only took him six days to write?

We’re guessing not very much – considering it appears yet again to be making the theatrical rounds all around the world. This latest batch includes a delightful outing at the Stratford Festival, a wonderfully amusing effort directed in grand style by the venerable Brian Bedford and starring the incomparable Seana McKenna.

So why the seven decade long interest in a drawing room work that is lightweight by any standards? Coward’s own words, when describing the play, are curious yet might explain why: “There’s no heart in the play,” he said. “If there was a heart, it would be a sad story.”

So it’s a happy but quirky play, an unlikely farce about life and love in the here-and-now and the hereafter. The focus is on a rather suave, genteel author, Charles Condomine (Ben Carlson), presumably fashioned much in the vein of Coward himself.

Thanks to the other-worldly activities of invited guest Madame Arcati (Seana McKenna), an annoying local bike-riding crackpot, author and psychic, who takes herself very seriously, poor Charles finds himself haunted by his morally loose first wife Elvira (Michelle Giroux).

That in itself presents a moral dilemma for the man, still very much married to his current and more staid spouse Ruth (Sara Topham). What it does for the storyline is provide all the laughs generated from what could be best described as a bizarre ménage à trois, of which no-one wishes to be part.

McKenna, who excels as Queen Elizabeth in the current Festival production of Mary Stuart, demonstrates here she is also a master of comedy. She can trade quips and barbs with the best of them and knows exactly how and when to milk laughs from the occasional pratfall, miscue and the oddly entrancing movements of the village’s rhythmically challenged medium.

Carlson does real justice to the role, showing all of us the author’s obvious disdain for the animalistic elements of passion, long-lasting relationships like marriage and morally questionable behavior, both from women and men. 

Proving to be quite the heel at times, he can also be quite ruthless and even cruelly hurtful in his interaction with his current wife:

“If you’re trying to compile an inventory of my sex life, I feel it only fair to warn that you’ve omitted several episodes. I shall consult my diary and give you a complete list after lunch.”

Topham is a wonderfully nagging wife while Giroux is a “spirited” addition to the less-than-happy household, getting under her husband’s skin at the most inappropriate times, leading to some of the play’s most entertaining and prickly encounters between the three.

If there’s a downside side to the levity, it may simply be that Coward appears to have little time for women, portraying Elvira as loose, Ruth as a constant nag, Arcati clearly not in full possession or her faculties and the maid Edith as a bumbler of the highest order. 

With that in mind, it’s no shocker to suggest there is never any real sense that Charles does or will ever miss either one of his two wives.

James Blendick and Wendy Thatcher add nice supporting roles as Dr. and Mrs. Bradham, guests at the initial séance, while Susie Burnett rounds out the cast as the oft-times incoherent Edith.

Blithe Spirit is a fairly gentle, humorous way to end the first week of Festival debuts, thanks to the fine work of McKenna, Carlson and company. Director Brian Bedford knows the drawing room by heart – both in and outside of this world – resulting in three out of **** stars.
This review was originally seen online at The Beat Magazine.

Photo by Don Dixon: top Michelle Giroux bottom l-r Sara Topham, Seana McKenna, Ben Carlson

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