Monday, December 18, 2017

A Mysterious Blithe Spirit

I'm not sure why it never occurred to me before, but ghost stories seem to be really popular in the holiday season. 


Photo by Dan Norman

Or maybe it's just a new trend this year? Either way we always have A Christmas Carol, of course, and several edgy new ghost tales have popped up on stage as detailed by other Twin Cities Theater Bloggers. The latest to appear is Blithe Spirit at the Guthrie Theater. Scheduled to be a companion piece to the emphatically more somber and chillingly emotional Watch on the Rhine, Blithe Spirit lifts the audience out of World War II doldrums and into a zany comedic atmosphere involving past wives, infidelities, crystal balls and seances galore.

Photo by Dan Norman

I'm a little loathe to describe the plot in detail as I think most of its power is sustained in figuring out the story as you go, but for a brief synopsis: Charles Condomine is researching psychological mediums for his new book. He and his wife Ruth invite Madame Arcati to their house for a demonstration, which they fully expect to be a sham. With fellow invited guests Dr. Bradman and his wife Edith, the Condomines are prepared for a riotous night - when all of a sudden the event goes awry and become far more real than any of them had bargained for.

Photo by Dan Norman

Sally Wingert stars as Madame Arcati, and although she's not the central focus of the story she most certainly carries the show. I've described Wingert before as the Twin Cities' Meryl Streep, and for good reason; she can make any ridiculous action or whimsical role seem as engaging and grave as the deepest Shakespeare. She's a joy to watch on stage, and it lights up whenever she enters. Suzanne Warmanen plays the Condomine's maid Edith, and her psychical comedy and pronounced facial contortions play well with Wingert to up the comedic ante.

Quinn Mattfeld is Charles Condomine and perfectly embodies the bland persona of a moneyed socialite. Heidi Armbruster is sharp as Charles' wife Ruth, bringing an edge typical of a Bette Davis or Myrna Loy to her lines. Together, Mattfeld and Armbruster make a comfortable pair who will feel familiar to anyone who has watched many film versions of similar screwball comedies from the 1940s. Elia Monte-Brown is spooky as Elvira, and her entrances always had the audience surprised.

Photo by Dan Norman

Production design is good as always. This time around the scenic design is provided by Jo Winiarski and costumes by Meg Neville. They are what you'd expect of a lavish, moneyed environment, and everyone is always very smartly dressed (true props out to the gorgeous green velvet smoking coat Charles wears in the second act and Ruth's impeccably tailored summer dresses). Most intriguing for me was the lighting design by Xavier Pierce, which incorporated many ghostly elements and had full barred lighting echoing throughout the stage in several thunderclap moments; it was a spooky but riveting effect, and I'd loved to see more use made of it. Vocal Coach Jill Walmsley Zager has clearly been working deeply with the cast, who delivered a pitch perfect nasally tone that was well suited to the era.

Photo by Dan Norman

So what was my final verdict? I'm a big fan of the aesthetic and concept behind this show, and I was thrilled to see a comedy (which is the genre I crave most and find most difficult to find, especially non-Christmas related at this time of year). The show was well performed, but it was long for me - almost three hours - and I wish it had been trimmed a little to help tighten up the jokes. For theatrical purists, though, I think there is a lot to like, and Noel Coward fans in particular I think will enjoy this production. It's nice to see a totally new story on stage that I've never seen before, and if you are craving more Sally Wingert after last season's magnificent production of Native Gardens (and honestly who isn't - that show was mind blowing), you'll get a tantalizing taste of her in Blithe Spirit.

Photo by Dan Norman

Blithe Spirit runs at the Guthrie Theater through January 14; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.