By Betsy Lizotte
The Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s production of Noel Coward’s world-class comedy Blithe Spirit was an old-fashioned roller coaster of fun: an essentially delightful thrill-ride of sustained, euphoric runs, flecked by a few short intervals of arid and rickety ascents.
In the play, Charles and Ruth Condomine, British socialites, are preparing to host a dinner party for their two friends, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman and an eccentric medium, Madame Arcati. Although skeptical of Madame Arcati’s abilities to converse with the dead, Charles wishes to observe her methods for his latest book. During the after-dinner séance, the two couples observe physical manifestations of supernatural activity, hear a voice from beyond, and see Madame Arcati fall into a trance. Unbeknownst to the dinner party members, the ghost of Charles’ first wife, the “morally untidy” Elvira, has been summoned. Only Charles can see her and he becomes so agitated that he tells his guests to leave. His current wife, Ruth, thinks he is drunk and scolds him. Charles chides Elvira, but Ruth thinks he is speaking to her and becomes aggravated with him. Miscommunication, jealousy and hilarity ensue. Tension builds between the threesome and expands to Madame Arcati and Edith, the Condomines’ new maid. Edith traipses in and out of scenes, harried, harassed and frazzled by menial labor and the condescending manner of Ruth. Mishaps occur and the characters end up where they should.
The play started strong with the set seeming to materialize out of a 1941 British manor house and each actor’s costumes and deft adoption of British diction aptly reflecting both their characters’ social stations and personalities. The pacing of the first act was ardent, with amusing, lively performances by Jessica Hannah Fraser (Ruth Condomine), Kurt Elftmann (Charles Condomine), and Natasha Preston (Edith). The pacing fell off in the middle of the second and third acts when Elftmann and Kay Kerimian (Elvira) were alone on the stage and the tension between them was drawn out. At these points, the play depended on the spirited delivery of lines, which foundered. Action picked up again at the climax of the second and third acts, with the re-entrance of other actors to expand the twosome to three or more, especially Barbara Pinolini (Madame Arcati) and Preston.
The set crew, including Photographer Joshua McKerrow, Lighting Designer Adam Mendelson, Special Effects Master Jeremy Bennet and Scene Designer Gaby Castillo, skillfully created a 1940s-era living room with a Queen Anne’s sofa, doilies on the tables, and wall sconces and created an otherworldly feel with spooky French doors that opened by themselves and a fireplace that glowed green when the specters were present. Costumes by Sandra Spence not only represented the epoch, but reflected the personalities and existential conditions of the characters. Ruth, Charles’ conservative second wife, wore a high-necked, pine-green gown in the first act, while Elvira (the ghost) wore a floor-length, diaphanous, gray chiffon dress.
The play’s lively, entertaining pace was immediately established by the diction of the actors. All of them spoke impressively at a native speaker’s conversational pace in a believable English accent, convincingly delivering Coward’s frisky, imaginative dialogue and tickling the audience at the appropriate moments. Fraser, Elftmann, Nancy Blum (Mrs. Bradman), Phil Bufithis (Dr. Bradman) and Kerimian used clipped syllables to denote their upper-class status, while Pinolini and Preston had a more rounded pronunciation to distinguish their lower bearing. The dialogue was convincing and great fun to hear.
Artistic Director, Sally Boyett and Voice/Dialect Coach, Nancy Krebs masterfully accelerated the actors’ delivery of lines to balance out the lengthy, nearly three-hour production. This energetic conversational pace kept the action moving and made the characters and 1941 manor house setting credible. However, some of the dialogue between Elftmann and Kerimian during the second and third acts when they were together alone on stage lagged a bit. Elftmann maintained interest with invigorated gestures and facial expressions, but Kerimian often wore a bland facial expression while waiting for Elftmann to say his lines, belying the play’s title.
Aside from hitting a few rickety rails, this production’s roller coaster careened down hills of crisp, authentic accents, around curves of authentic sets, special effects, and luxurious costumes, and provided a lion’s share of laughs with its buoyant, stimulating performances. I’d ride it again.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 50 minutes, including two 10-minute intermissions.
Blithe Spirit plays through Sunday, February 25, 2018, at Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Main Stage – 1804 West Street, Annapolis, MD 21401. For tickets, call the box office at 410-415-3513, or purchase them online.