Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Khephra: A Hip Hop Holiday Story
Both the Hellman and Coward plays were written in the once common three-act format. Both premiered in 1941 in the shadow of World War II, and both enjoyed critical and box office success. However, where Lillian Hellman cast Watch on the Rhine as a most serious caution against remaining aloof from the maelstrom, aimed at the American audience, Coward created Blithe Spirit as an elixir for a British populace already bruised and battered by the war, after a year of the London Blitz and the demoralizing evacuation from Dunkirk. Recognizing the state of the national mental health, Coward wrote the play purely to entertain, and entertain it did, running 1,997 performances, a long-run record for a non-musical in its day.
In his own words, Coward wrote, "I shall ever be grateful for the almost psychic gift that enabled me to write Blithe Spirit in five days during one of the darkest years of the war." No doubt his reference to psychic gifts was poking fun at his own plot device, the scuffle stirred up for novelist Charles Condomine and his second wife, Ruth, when the ghost of his first wife, Elvira (who died in that same elegant room), shows up to playfully torment them. It seems Charles' next novel is to feature a murderous psychic medium, and as a form of research, he invites a local woman, Madam Arcati, who claims to have those gifts, to hold a séance in his home. Both Charles and Ruth believe the whole business to be poppycock, and expect to have a grand time observing Madame Arcati's charade, though worry about refraining from fits of laughter. Of course, Madame Arcati believes their invitation to be wholly sincere. To make more of a social occasion of it, Charles has invited his equally skeptical friend, Dr. Bradman, and the doctor's wife to join them. The Condomines' high-strung new maid, Edith, completes the cast of characters.
Much to his amazement, Charles first hears, then sees, Elvirathat is, Elvira's ghost. No one else can see her, causing the others to find Charles behaving in ways that seem exceedingly peculiar, even rude, as when Ruth assumes that Charles' stern rebukes to naughty Elvira are directed at her. And Elvira is naughty, able to make great mischief without being seen, casting unkind judgements on Ruth, and seemingly intent on seducing her earth-bound former husband. Once she knows the score, Ruth calls Madame Arcati back to the scene and begs her to undo whatever magic she employed to conjure up Elvira's ghost. That turns out to be easier said than done.
The story, as you no doubt already have determined, is as goofy as silly putty, but what fun! Half the fun is in Noel Coward's witty banter and wry use of hyperbole. For example, early on, Charles refers to Elvira's attractiveness, and Ruth asks if Elvira was more so than she. After Charles fails to provide the hoped for answer, Ruth refers to Elvira as "physically triumphant." Later, when Charles states that Elvira is dead, she retorts: "Not deadpassed on. To call someone dead is considered poor taste on the other side." Of course, the success of such dialog lies much in the delivery, and director David Ivers has assembled a troupe who serve the material well. Aside from Coward's wit, the contrivances of the plot delight, in spite of its lunacy. We can't help but wonder where the bedlam will go next. Director Ivers guides the work with a steady hand on the reins that lets the piece briskly trot, but never run away. The lavish design work makes everything more festive as well, particularly Meg Neville's stunning attire for Ruth and the outlandish get-ups worn by Madame Arcati.
Speaking of the Madame, that role is in itself one of Blithe Spirit's major delights. In fact, it is one of the plum comic roles in 20th century theater. It has been played by some of that century's most glorious actressesMargaret Rutherford (the original production and the David Lean film), Mildred Natwick, Beatrice Lillie, Geraldine Page and, moving into the 21st century, Angela Lansbury (on Broadway and in the West End). Several years ago, Wendy Lehr brilliantly essayed the role at the Jungle. Now, at the Guthrie, the reliably amazing Sally Wingert steps into Madame Arcati's outrageous robes. Wingert has a field day, staunch down-to-earth banter one minute, summoning the cosmos with gauzy prose the next. She brings a physicality to the role that keeps us always guessing where she will alight next, and the dance she performs as preparation for the séance is as hilarious as Coward no doubt intended. Her performance alone is worth the price of admission.
Quinn Mattfeld as Charles, and Elia Monte-Brown as Elvira are both making Twin Cities debuts, and both are terrific. Mattfeld's Charles is suitably smug and self-satisfied at the start, then flies apart with comic flair as he tries to cope with Elvira's return from the other side. Monte-Brown has a sexy, ethereal presence and smoky voice that makes us understand how she could continue to have a hold over Charles seven years after she died, or shall I say, passed on. Heidi Armbruster, who plays Ruth, has graced the Guthrie before, but the bulk of her experience is in New York, as well as other regional theaters. Her Ruth is well honed to be both more direct and more brittle than Elvira, a more grounded but most likely less fun spouse for Charles. All three deliver Coward's barbed dialog as if it were in their blood, with great chemistry between the three. Bob Davis and Amy Warner fully inhabit Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, and Suzanne Warmanen mines the physicality in the dotty maid Edith.
I am inclined to seek out deep meaning, social observations, emotional insights, and historical reckonings in my theatergoing. I generally am less inclined, on my own, to choose a show just because it is fun. A play like Blithe Spirit points out the folly of that approach. Nothing wrong with the more serious fare, but my goodness, Coward is right. We do need to laugh, and to give ourselves a respite from the onslaught of trouble in the world. A dose of laughter can clear out the woeful debris clogging our minds like a spoonful of hot mustard. When a play is as well constructed as Blithe Spirit and a production is blessed with as much loving care and talent as currently at the Guthrie, it is an even more compelling choice. Blithe Spirit is a lovely, heartily funny gift of holiday cheer.
Blithe Spirit continues through January 14, 2018, at the Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $29.00 - $77.00. Senior (age 65+), student and 30 & below discounts available. Rush seats 30 minutes before performance, when available, from $15.00 - $30.00, cash or check only. For ticket information call 612-377-2224 or go to GuthrieTheater.org.
Writer: Noel Coward; Director: David Ivers; Scenic Design: Jo Winiarski; Costume Design: Meg Neville; Lighting Design: Xavier Pierce; Sound Design: Scott W. Edwards; Vocal Coach: Jill Walmsley Zager; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Stage Manager: Tree O'Halloran; Assistant Stage Manager: Justin Hossle; Assistant Director: Flordelino Lagundino; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Design Assistants: Alice Fredrickson (costumes), Alex Clarke (lighting), Reid Rejsa (sound).
Cast: Heidi Armbruster (Ruth), Bob Davis (Dr. Bradman), Quinn Mattfeld (Charles Condomine), Elia Monte-Brown (Elvira), Suzanne Warmanen (Edith), Amy Warner (Mrs. Bradman), Sally Wingert (Madame Arcati).