Wayne State’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ a ghostly delight
DETROIT— The Maggie Allesee Department of Theatre and Dance at Wayne State University is helping patrons channel their Halloween spirit by staging Blithe Spirit, the 1941 comedy by Sir Noël Coward that was witty enough to divert worried WWII Londoners and charm them with clever repartee.
This elaborate production at the Hilberry Theatre is directed by James Kuhl, an alumnus of the MFA program and now Producing Artistic Director at Tipping Point Theatre. It’s a joyous reunion, as evidenced by the quality of the performances and the enthusiasm of the audience.
In true Noël Coward form, the story is a romp through the trials and torments of the shallowest members of the privileged classes. Tragedies that in a Russian play would break our hearts become, in Coward’s witty banter, ironically laughable. A BBC-induced heart attack; a fall down the stairs that leaves a young man concussed; a murder that misfires and strikes the wrong target — Coward ladles it on with humor that’s drier than the perfect martinis served by the play’s leading man, Charles Condomine (John Bergeron).
The entire play is set in the sumptuous Condomine home where Charles, a widower of seven years, lives happily with his wife of two years, the lovely Ruth (Lani Call). The play opens as the eager-to-please servant Edward (Quint Mediate) races about the house in preparations for the evening’s entertainment. A successful writer of mystery novels, Charles decides to jazz up his next book by dabbling in the paranormal. He invites the skeptical Doctor Bradman (Jacob Chapman) and his more susceptible wife (Torie Leigh) to participate in a séance conducted by Madam Arcati (Jasmine Monét Roosa). Charles is strictly interested in the séance for research purposes; he assumes that Arcati is a fraud and he wants to study her banter and conjuring tricks for his book. Instead, Madam Arcati conjures the spirit of Charles’ dead ex-wife Elvira (Sarah Summerwell) — who resents the new Mrs. Condomine and wants Charles all to herself.
Of course, no one can see or hear Elvira except Charles, and Ruth is alternately convinced that he’s being a boorish bully, or is in fact fully off his rocker. Ultimately Ruth is convinced of Elvira’s presence (which she insists shows evidence of Elvira’s ill breeding) and the women clash. Madam Arcati is summoned once more, but it seems there’s no obvious way to send Elvira back to the beyond. To make matters worse, Elvira schemes to take matters into her own hands, and ultimately unleashes a maelstrom of evil that threatens the entire household.
Of course, it’s all managed with the blasé form for which the entitled British elite are famed. Not even her own death can nudge Elvira off her sense of class propriety. Rose seems far more concerned about social embarrassment than actual danger from a homicidal ghost. And Charles thinks they should all just jolly well learn to get along. This is pure farce and, under Kuhl’s direction, the cast drips with the ironic drollery we expect in a sharp Noel Coward production. Jasmine Monét Roosa’s performance as Madame Arcati is a comedic stand-out, and the more eccentric she becomes, the more we realize that she is the only authentic person in the bunch.
The fabulous set design is by Fred Florkowski, with dramatic lighting by Megan O’Brien and sound design by Sydney McMillan. Together, this team makes the supernatural effects come alive. The costumes are sumptuously elegant and the red gown Tori Leigh first appears in is just to die for.
This is a wonderful production and may be just what you need — like the war-weary Londoners — to escape the news for a night of pure laughter.
Read more about Blithe Spirit 09/20–10/06
Read more about Hilberry Theatre