Currently running through July 28 at the Byrdcliffe Theater in a new production by the Voice Theatre Ensemble, Blithe Spirit is one of Noël Coward’s more enduring and effervescent plays. When he wrote it in 1941, the spiritualism craze among bored aristocrats was half a century past its peak and mainly in disrepute, making its practitioners easy fodder for farcical treatment. Coward tried and discarded several ideas for a play involving ghosts before arriving at his winning scenario with some help from his friend, the actress Joyce Carey (who later ended up playing the role of Violet in the 1945 David Lean film version). Once he had the concept clear in his mind, Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in less than a week, and knew at once that he had a hit on his hands.
Though dense with the rapid-fire witty banter for which the playwright is renowned, Blithe Spirit’s tone is as lightweight as ectoplasm, treating the subject of death so casually that British audiences demoralized by their losses in World War II found the play a welcome tonic. Its West End run ran for 1,997 performances, setting a record at the time for non-musicals, and it quickly moved on to Broadway. Nowadays revivals are fairly rare, so it’s a treat to have the Voice Theatre bring it to Woodstock, under the direction of Shauna Kanter.
The original setting for the play is among the English leisure class, but it could just as easily be happening in some upscale enclave in the US: a Connecticut suburb, perhaps – or even Woodstock itself. The props, set and costume design of this production evoke the late ’60s or early ’70s. The provocative ghost Elvira (Megan Bones) is dressed like a mod “sex kitten” from a spy spoof, with mannerisms to match, and the layered multiethnic regalia of the medium Madame Arcati will look extremely familiar to anyone who has been around this town for several decades. She could have just wandered in off the Village Green.
Leigh Strimbeck owns the stage at the Byrdcliffe in the role of the hippie spiritualist, playing her as cannier and less absurd than the rest of the characters are inclined to believe (or to behave themselves). There’s a little more going on here than your garden-variety shyster occultist fleecing the gullible masses with her airy-fairy mumbo-jumbo. Coward gave Madame Arcati’s flaky dialogue internal logic, and Strimbeck makes us root for her to prevail. That she travels everywhere sustainably by bicycle, day and night in all weathers, adds a surprising timeliness to this character.
Joris Stuyck plays Charles Condomine, the successful novelist who arranges a séance in his home as part of the research for his next book. His flighty first wife Elvira has been dead for seven years, and Charles is now remarried, to the much more sensible and proper Ruth (Molly O’Brien). Hints of tension between the couple blow up into revelatory arguments after Arcati accidentally conjures up Elvira’s ghost, whom only Charles can see, and Elvira immediately begins plotting to drive Ruth out of the house so that she and her widower can be together once again.
Aside from the supernatural elements, this all fits the basic formula of a Coward comedy of arch domestic bickering and one-upsmanship among the rich and sophisticated. Under pressure from the spirit world they never believed existed, admissions of past infidelities slip out and pile up, which made the play seem risqué in its time, though they’re less shocking (if no less heartless) today. If there’s one aspect of Blithe Spirit that hasn’t worn so well in these woke times, it’s the verbal catfighting between the wives living and dead. One can’t help wondering why, now that everyone knows that Noël Coward was gay, we’re not seeing gender-swapped renditions of this play, as some of the two women’s dialogue would probably sound considerably funnier coming out of a male actor in drag.
All three actors in the living/dead love triangle do superb work with their parts, with O’Brien’s tense, teeth-gritting, falsely smiling slow burn a particular standout. They’re ably supported by John Remington and Angela B. Potrikus as Dr. Bradman and his wife Violet, skeptical neighbors who attend the séance, and Caitlin Connelly as the accident-prone housemaid Edith. And Strimbeck grabs our delighted attention every time Madame Arcati swoops in. Kanter keeps them all on the beat in a vehicle where comic timing, especially in the verbal byplay, is paramount to our enjoyment. Calling this a “spirited production” is a terrible cliché, but an irresistible one.
Performances of Blithe Spirit begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday until July 28, with matinées on Sundays (plus Saturday, July 27) at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $28 general admission, $20 for students and seniors. To order, call (800) 838-3006 or visit voicetheatre.brownpapertickets.com. For more information, call (845) 679-0154. The Byrdcliffe Theater is located at 380 Upper Byrdcliffe Road in Woodstock.
— Frances Marion Platt, Hudson Valley One, 07/2019, review of Blithe Spirit at Byrdcliffe Theater, written by Noël Coward and directed by Shauna Kanter.