Blithe Spirit Indeed: The Voice Theater Brings “Back” to Life a Delightful Script in Woodstock

Nestled in the aromatic forests of Woodstock, in a theater which even the skeptic would agree evinces the possibility of ghosts with only the slightest effort of imagination, the Voice Theater and Director Shauna Kanter bring an engaging set of living and recently passed characters to the stage in their production of Blithe Spirit. Written in 1941 by Noel Coward, the play opens to an engaging couple, Charles and Ruth Condomine, each married for the second time. Played by Joris Stuyck and Molly O’Brien respectively, they who are preparing to entertain friends, and, mot notably, a local medium, in an effort to research the “methods” (they assume, actually, the “tricks”) of that profession, in appearing to conjure spirits of the dearly departed. The dinner party has been arranged by Charles, a writer by trade, as part of his research for an upcoming book. The medium, Madame Arcati, played by Leigh Strimbeck, arrives with a flourish, suitably eclectic an interesting from the start, and advises, among other things, that the efforts of the séance may not work, in fact, apparently they rarely do; there must be someone in the house who has the psychic ability to “call” the spirit into the home. One never knows, apparently, if the folks involved have the right ectoplasmic aptitude. The Condomines, Madame Arcati, and their friends, Doctor and Mrs. Bradman, settle in for the exciting effort, and we’re off. By this time, we have also met the frazzled, heavy-footed, Edith, the live-in housekeeper who may, or may not, be overworked – but certainly looks to be.

The set is immediately appealing, and must be commended. The use of the theater’s atypical stage space is outstanding. Set designer Julianna von Haubrich has worked with it such that it actually enhances the sense of a real parlor in a functional home; there is nothing “set-like” about it, in fact.

O’Brien, as Ruth, is a marvelous actor, in complete control of the stage and the audience from the first moment. Whether engaged in the idle conversation of husband and wife, the more biting sarcasm of a couple testing each other’s will, or the frustration of a spouse at her wits’ end, Ms. O’Brien is entirely believable and utterly effective. It is a credit to Stuyck’s craft that in his hands, the charm and wit of Charles leave us endeared to him even when the situation he seeks to have blessed by both his living and dead spouses is clearly untenable. When on stage together, O’Brien and Stuyck show us a couple with a back-story and a real relationship. Alone, they each command attention.

That “situation,” to be precise, is the appearance, and determined lingering, of Charles’ first wife, Elvira, played by Megan Bones, as a result of the first séance’s unexpected success. In Bones’ hands, Elvira is a scene-stealing apparition reminiscent of Jane Fonda’s iconic Barbarella. Clearly a bit too much to handle when she was living, she is much more than Charles can manage when dead. And, despite his best efforts, no “middle-ground” can be reached between his first and second wife. Indeed, the ghostly Elvira has plans to regain her now re-married spouse’s undivided attention, which will not, as any seasoned audience member will assume, go quite as intended. Ms. Bones is as alluring and “blithe” as could have been imagined by the playwright, and her performance is a joy to watch.

Ms. Strimbeck gives us a robust and eccentric Arcati; equal parts legitimate shaman and fellow seeker of truth. She invests the character with the confidence of someone who knows what she believes because she’s seen it with her own eyes, and still glories in what she has yet to encounter. In a relatively “light” play, a very talented actor gives us a very three-dimensional character.

Caitlin Connelly, as the beleaguered Edith, is wonderfully played. The highest compliment to be paid to her performance is that one feels it is perhaps a flaw in the revered Coward’s script that we don’t see Edith more often. That sense might not be so keenly felt if Edith were in the hands of an actor less capable than Connelly.

Dr. Bradman is perfectly and pleasantly agnostic in the face of all the other-worldly goings-on as played by John Remington. His skepticism is very appealingly balanced by the performance of Angela Buesing Potrikus as his wife Violet Bradman; a woman with the erstwhile enthusiasm of someone without the right eye to see the other dimension, but entirely willing to believe in it. Both Remington and Buesing Potrikus are strong counters to O’Brien and Stuyck, a notable accomplishment in the limited space within which Coward gives their characters to work.

To say more would be to give some delightful twists away. Suffice it to say that in the two weeks remaining in this show’s run, Hudson Valley theater goers would do well to support this production. It is a well-directed, very strongly acted presentation of an entertaining play, seen in a beautiful Hudson Valley setting. Tickets are available at and the show runs through July 28. Tickets are available online at voicetheatre.brownpapertickets.com., and advance purchase is encouraged.

— Joe Eriole, Hudson Valley Ovation, 07/2019, review of Blithe Spirit at Byrdcliffe Theater, written by Noël Coward and directed by Shauna Kanter.

Voice Theatre conjures up a frothy, frisky Blithe Spirit at Byrdcliffe

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.

All My Sons

Even before the lights come up it’s obvious this is a magnificently audacious production. In 50 years I’ve never seen such a lavish set on a Woodstock stage. So for a moment I wonder if — here in this intimate Byrdcliffe Theater — the opulent naturalism of a 1946 Ohio backyard struck by gale, isn’t over the top. Then two lightning-fast hours later, while recovering from a state of shock, I realize set, cast, and director are actually a perfect match.

I’ve been clandestinely ushered into a rehearsal a full week ahead of opening night to already find astonishingly realized performances. And they had better be. For no theater company survives which mounts a tragedy during the most depressing July anyone can recall, unless their play is an exact mirror of its historical moment. This one is. And so by experiencing it we at last fully understand ourselves, our nation, our world, and our fate.

Admittedly, it’s highly peculiar that All My Sons which finally brought Arthur Miller world acclaim 70 years ago, should prove a perfect storm exposing the world’s most infamous business man today. Then again, Joe Keller, the father in All My Sons (a fully convincing John Little) is indeed a most notorious American businessman. However, America — having saved the world from Hitler — seemed a noble nation. So when the instantly sympathetic Keller claims to have done no wrong we tend to believe him. Sure, it was the other guy who made the rash mistake which brought on the disaster and the real culprit is behind bars.

Joe Keller and his wife, Kate, (an extraordinary Leigh Strimbeck) have proudly raised two sons both of whom are war heroes. The younger, Chris, (a perfectly cast Ryan Feyk) commanded a platoon of men who “killed themselves to save each other.” But such nobility is unknown to civilian life and Chris is emasculated by a post-war America even if — as his father’s new partner — he becomes rich. So Chris manages to look the other way. While Larry, his older brother who went missing in action three years earlier, serves as the phantom engine of the play. His enigma casts a veil obscuring a wrecked family from itself while providing an illusion of unity, until a final day of reckoning dawns for the Kellers — the very day rendered before us.

Under the direction of Shauna Kanter Voice Theatre’s production of Arthur Miller’s first and most merciless masterpiece somehow manages to foreshadow our own day of reckoning. This accomplishment becomes less surprising however, once Kanter admits to her personal belief that All My Sons is actually more pertinent and powerful today than when it took Broadway by storm in 1947. The reason being, of course, that rampant industrial corruption was at that time relatively rare, whereas most of America — and the world — fully realizes that big business is thriving today in the US of A within a total moral vacuum, created at the top, and consciously passed down as low as it might go with a wink and a nod.

And so this slowly unraveling industrial cover-up, in which great wealth is gained by a certain family in a prolonged war, during which they also lose their oldest son — well, it all hits a nerve. Actually, it hits several nerves I won’t divulge here except to say: there came for me that one devastating moment, when having lost myself in this gripping drama from another time, I suddenly realized that All My Sons was completely of this time, and that we as a nation, in fact, are the Keller family. For most of us look the other way as the great experiment of America suffocates beyond resuscitation. While in this stranger than fiction age of presidential Tweets replacing “The President speaks” no crime or tragedy can ever touch the shameless one, for it’s always the fault of “the other guy.” And though Joe Keller weeps aloud to his surviving son, “I did it for you!” because business must be protected above all else, since money — in war and in peace — is what matters most. Indeed, because this is the creed most fathers attempt to impart to all their children, particularly their sons, without actually putting into words. Yet when this instruction actually is put into words and those words become deeds then we awaken to completely mercenary society, whereupon this production of All My Sons becomes not only a mirror we must look into, but a laser to melt our hearts — and let us pray — forge them anew.

Don’t miss it.

— Tad Wise, Hudson Valley One, 07/2018, review of Voice Theatre’s All My Sons at Byrdcliffe Theater, written by Arthur Miller and directed by Shauna Kanter

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

“TROY – Wow!
Sometimes one has to look in corners and crevices to find the best the area arts scene has to offer. Such is the case with the Theatre Institute at Sage’s 50th Anniversary Second Stage production of Edward Albee’s staggering masterpiece “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”…a small, excellent cast.

David Bunce and Leigh Strimbeck play George and Martha. Bunce, easily doing his best work ever, is remarkable as George, and Strimbeck is often genuinely fearsome as the cat in the corner Martha. They hurl insult after insult, while riding waves of emotion, Scotch and gin.

They make this the best “Woolf” I have seen (which is saying something, considering it’s my favorite play)…This play is not light. It is as dark as art gets, and it plunges headlong into the inky depths of the crippled American spirit…Very recommended”

— Albany Times Union Arts Beat Blog by Michael Eck, 11/2012

Melancholy Play

“Her lover, nurse Joan, is played by Leigh Strimbeck, with an assurance and sense of place and purpose that is absolute. There is no denying Joan is a nurse. It would seem that there is no acting going on here, but this Joan is THE Joan and that Joan is a nurse. Her physicality of the role is tremendous; just watch her entrances and exits and you learn so much more about who Joan is in relation to her lover and her professional world. She also has an accent that places her as foreign to the environment portrayed in this play. Much is made of that, so we know it’s true. Brilliantly it is Strimbeck at the wheel, for she does all of this very, very well.”

— Peter J. Bergman, Berkshire Bright Focus, 11/2010, review of WAM Theatre’s Melancholy Play, written by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Kristen van Ginhoven