by Betsy Labiner
The Rogue Theatre’s production of Blithe Spirit is, in the words of the play itself, “a jolly time with Elvira.” Noël Coward’s play, directed here by Joseph McGrath, is at turns cheeky and biting, even occasionally caustic, but always a great deal of fun.
The play follows a couple, Charles and Ruth Condomine (played by Ryan Parker Knox and Bryn Booth, respectively), who host a seance as research for a novel Charles is writing. They, and their friends the Bradmans (played by Matt Walley and Carley Elizabeth Preston), expect to be entertained by a charlatan. Madame Arcati (played by Cynthia Meier), despite the couples’ skepticism and cheerful mockery, turns out to be all too successful — and thus the spirit of Charles’s late first wife Elvira (played by Holly Griffith) is summoned back to the world of the living. The resultant comedy of confusion and miscommunication is laugh-out-loud funny, running the gamut from frothy lightheartedness to moments of dark humor in which startled laughter is the only possible reaction.
The entire play takes place in the living room of the Condomines’ house; the lighting in the room cleverly shifts from warm, buttery light in the evening, to brighter white during the day, and the light through the window similarly shifts in tone to indicate the passage of time. Russell Ronnebaum’s music also works to set the mood and — crucially — to advance the plot. I also want to give a sweeping tip of the hat to Meier’s costume design, and the execution thereof by Meier, Nanalee Raphael, and Barb Tanzillo, as well as to wig stylist Kate Mammana. Their work on the entire cast is excellent, but Griffith’s ghostly hair and makeup is downright superb. Griffith is the epitome of old Hollywood glamour, and her bombshell look is played up by the way she sashays around the room and insouciantly lounges on the couch, flirting and insulting with equal coquettishness. Elvira’s white hair and silver gown contrast wonderfully with Ruth’s vivid costumes of red and pink, particularly in scenes when the women interact.
Griffith, Booth, and Knox play off each other well in their otherworldly love triangle; Knox is delightfully hapless in Charles’s inability to manage conversations with both wives at once, and Booth’s frazzled shifts between anger, fear, and vicious determination make Ruth equally as engaging as the spectral Elvira. Meier throws herself fully into Madame Arcati’s ridiculousness, garnering lots of laughs, and her earnestness serves as a pointed juxtaposition to the other characters’ cynicism. Though Walley and Preston have comparatively little stage time, they imbue a massive amount of subtext to the Bradmans’ interactions — it was easy to feel like we knew far more about the couple than the play actually communicates. Erin Buckley, as the Condomines’ perpetually overwrought maid Edith, managed to be both clownish and sympathetic.
The comedic timing of the cast is spot-on, as is their physical interplay. It’s an absolute blast to be in on the joke, as the audience gets to see and hear Elvira when many of the characters do not. There were a few stumbles in the dialogue, but the missteps were minor and the actors recovered well when they occurred. These hiccups are understandable; Coward’s dialogue is whip-fast, often grammatically odd, and full of verbiage that trips up the tongue. The actors do well with it overall, and the banter is as sharp as it is rapid.
The play runs two and a half hours, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. While the pacing lags ever so slightly in the initial scene as the play works to introduce the characters, their backstories, and the set-up for the seance, it picks up speed as soon as Elvira arrives. It seemed to me that this is a function of the play itself rather than a fault of the production; Coward wants his audience to have a strong sense of the characters so we can more fully appreciate it when they go to pieces as the action unfolds. And, as previously said, the vast majority of the play races along at a merry clip that carries the audience along in a happy reverie.
Blithe Spirit, while a far cry from the heaviness of some of The Rogue’s other offerings, is hardly fluff. Even as the audience laughs, we’re confronted with the “morally untidy” world in which nobody is quite what we’d like them to be, and love is often tangled with power struggles, betrayal, and spite. Charles, Elvira, and Ruth each compel and repel us, earning our empathy only to lose our goodwill moments later. Lines like, “It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit,” knock the wind out of us, but then we find ourselves forgetting the incisive condemnation with the next joke. Coward’s comedy walks a knife’s edge, often threatening to tip into tragedy and bleakness, but this production successfully maintains the balancing act.
If you want a deeply enjoyable night at the theatre, go see Blithe Spirit before this production gives up the ghost.
Blithe Spirit runs at The Rogue Theatre November 7–24, Thursday–Saturday at 7:30 PM, and Saturday & Sunday at 2:00 PM. Tickets may be purchased online at theroguetheatre.org, by phone at 520-551-2053, or at the box office beginning one hour prior to shows (walk-up purchasing is always pending availability).