Pit & Balcony Explores the Wit, Humor & Eloquence of Noel Coward’s Comedic Classic ‘Blithe Spirit

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre,   From Issue 806   By: Robert E Martin

05th March, 2015     1

As Pit & Balcony Theatre continues their foray into plays that tend to push the theatrical envelope; their next presentation involves a revival of playwright Noel Coward’s incredibly urbane and tightly woven comedy Blithe Spirit, which will make a six-performance run from March 20-22 & 27-29th.

The plot-line of this play concerns the socialite and novelist Charles Condomine, who invites the eccentric medium and clairvoyant, Madame Arcati, to his house to conduct a séance, hoping to gather material for his next book. The scheme backfires when after the séance he is haunted by the ghost of his annoying and temperamental first wife, Elvira, who makes continual attempts to disrupt Charles's marriage to his second wife, Ruth, who cannot see or hear the ghost.

The play was first seen in the West End of London in 1941, creating a new long-run record for non-musical British plays of 1,997 performances. It also did well on Broadway later that year, running for 657 performances. Coward adapted the play for film in 1945, starring Rex Harrison, and directed a musical adaptation, High Spirits, on Broadway in 1964. It was also adapted for television in the 1950s and 1960s and for radio. The play enjoyed several West End and Broadway revivals in the 1970s and 1980s and was revived again in London in 2004, 2011 and 2014. It returned to Broadway in February 2009.

The title of the play is taken from Shelley's poem "To a Skylark", ("Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! / Bird thou never wert"). For some time before 1941 Coward had been thinking of a comedy about ghosts. His first thoughts centered on an old house in Paris, haunted by spectres from different centuries, with the comedy arising from their conflicting attitudes, but he could not get the plot to work in his mind.  He knew that in wartime Britain, with death a constant presence, there would be some objection to a comedy about ghosts, but his firm view was that as the story would be thoroughly heartless, "you can't sympathize with any of them. If there was a heart it would be a sad story."

After his London office and flat had been destroyed in the Blitz, Coward took a short holiday with the actress Joyce Carey at Portmeirion on the coast of Snowdonia in Wales. She was writing a play about Keats, and he was still thinking about his ghostly light comedy. Amazingly, during this stint Coward wrote this work in six days, working from 8 to one each morning and two to seven each afternoon. Coward said of this work, “I will admit that I knew it was witty and well-constructed, and I also knew that it would be a success.”

For Director Michael Wisniewski, who also directed Blithe Spirit previously for Bay City Players years ago, revisiting this work reinforced the challenging nature of Coward’s creation, which through the benefit of experienced gained through his previous foray, aided him immensely in terms of bringing a fresh translation to the stage.

“First and foremost Noel Coward wrote an incredibly witty and engaging script,” reflects Wisniewski. “It’s described as an ‘Improbable Farce in 3 Acts’, meaning that its unlikely to happen in real life, yet the dialogue is both conversational, yet so sharp and witty that these funny lines and incredible zingers pop forth from these conversations. In many ways this play is a comedy of errors, with conversations elevating into bickering. But along with Private Lives and Hay Fever, this is one of Coward’s most produced plays and it is very urbane.”

“What’s interesting about Blithe Spirit to me is that it was written in 1941 when the second World War was escalating and friends and confidants of Coward’s told him that nobody wanted to see a play about dead people,” continues Michael. “Yet it moves very quickly and from an audience perspective, there is a delicate balance between moving too fast and moving too slow. The vernacular is very English and this can’t be presented as an American play, because that dry wit and humor comes from the British sensibility.”

The cast for Blithe Spirit is comprised of Michael Curtis playing the lead role of Charles, Cathie Stewart as Ruth, Amy Spadafore-Loose as Elvira, Lucy Malacos as Madame Arcati the Medium, and rounded out by cast members David Lewis, Audrey Lewis and Karen Fenech.  

“There is really one way to do this show, which is the way it is written,” states Michael. “It was written in a specific time period, with a specific manner and style. So one of the biggest challenges for the actors is the line-load, especially for the characters of Ruth & Charles; but also for Elvira and Madam Arcati, who is central in the outcome of the play.”

Wisniewski also served as set designer for this P&B production, which he again found his prior experience with the work helpful.  “One of the most difficult parts is the end of the play, where things are flying off shelves and pictures are turning, which is all done behind the scenes by a crew,” he continues.

“But even in the beginning Elvira is walking through French doors that she’s not opening, but automatically open when she materializes, so yes – this is a very challenging play to direct. There’s a lot of thought involved with it; and as noted earlier, for the actors it is a line-load. This play is written so specific that you’ve got to be careful of tripping up, because there isn’t a lot of room for going back or looping yourself around, because the words follow a pattern,” adds Michael.

“The goal is to make the audience believe in the Afterlife; and there’s one part in the play where Charles doesn’t believe Elvira is here, so he makes her take a bowl of flowers across the room. How we make the audience believe they are floating is through the reaction of the actors to focus on the flowers instead of the body moving. But so much happens throughout this play that is grows funnier as it progresses.”

“The beginning is as important as the ending because that first part is where you grab your audience,” states Michael. “The beginning is where you get them or you lose them; and with the beginning of Blithe Spirit the beginning is all about Ruth and Charles – two actors on stage with 7 pages of dialogue. And if you look at this script it’s in a smaller typeface than most scripts. It’s a lengthy play, but we’re not doing a traditional 3-act version of it. I’m breaking it into two acts and making solid and clean transitions. We often forget back when this was written people only had radio for entertainment; and Blithe Spirit clocked in at 3-and-a-half hours, which was nothing back then.  Today it’s unheard of.”

 

The Cast & Challenge of Character

All the actors agree with Wisniewski that the biggest challenge involved with this production emanates from the erudite nature of Coward’s script. For Amy Spadafore, who plays one of the pivotal roles of Elvira, the tight and specific nature of the script did present a challenge for her.

“For starters I haven’t acted in ten years,” she admits. “I’ve spent most of my time back stage over that period, so acting again in itself presented a challenge. Plus, I hated the script the first time I read it. I thought to myself, ‘who talks like this? But then remembered this was back in 1930s-40s London, so when they say ‘I do indeed’ it would be like me saying ‘Hell, yeah!’ today. Once I figured how I would say these lines in my own vernacular it helped me greatly. Not only is the language challenging, but throwing in a bit of a British accent is also a challenge.”

When asked if there are elements in Elvira’s character that she is striving to flesh out, Amy reflects how Michael had each of the actors do a back-story for their characters, to help understand them.

“That was a fun exercise,” reflects Amy, “because I decided that Elvira never really loved Charles. I started playing with the idea that she was only with him because his lifestyle was exciting to her, so when I come back from the dead for him, it’s my idea that she isn’t coming for her long lost love but because she is bored of the Afterlife and he adored her and made her feel special. So I’m trying to act a little different than the ‘I miss the love of my life’ type of thing. I see Elvira as sexy and flirty, but really flakey. I hated her too when I first read the role, but I love what I’m doing with her and hope the audience will, too. You can have fun with her character because she can go anywhere from 1 to 10 in any moment. I think Elvira is annoyed that her Charles has married this woman that’s probably better for him anyway.”

As the lead actor for the central role of Charles, Mike Curtis enjoys the benefit of having had his own unique experience with Blithe Spirit many years ago. “Back in the early 1980s I had a chance to be an apprentice on a production of this play that starred Ava Gabor up at Cherry County Playhouse in Traverse City,” he explains. “I was running sound and had this vision of that production and that experience going into this role.”

“Coward is sophisticated and the language is very carefully constructed,” agrees Curtis. “It’s complicated in the way he lays it out, yet it’s specific partly because of the dialect and partly because his style is so eloquent. Unlike the British as Americans we try to condense things, so it is challenging on that front.”

“One thing I’m realizing is the restraint involved with maintaining that British feel – that sense of being controlled,” notes Curtis. “We like to let lose as Americans, so to keep that British reserve and not go too over the top, even during scenes where things grow rather frantic and intense is definitely a challenge. You still need to maintain a layer of reserve over it. But there are many wonderful lines in this work. One of my favorites is when Charles goes: “It’s amazing how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” 

Cathie Stewart joins a similar chorus with the other key actors in terms of focusing upon the precision of Coward’s sentence construction. “It’s a big script and I find my character of Ruth hilarious. She’s all about logic and reason, yet calls in a psychic to exorcise a ghost. Yet she’s still trying to be the paradigm of propriety about it all. When you contrast those two realities, it’s pretty funny.”

Blithe Spirit translates well to current times because really it’s all about relationships and second marriages,” she continues. “When you know someone and are in a relationship there is a way you speak to one another and know the lines you can and cannot cross. You know the parameters of the lines in that relationship and can see the different between what can be.”

Mike Curtis perhaps sums it up exquisitely when he notes: “The challenge and thrill for all of us I think is in dealing with the language – the rhythm and the humor of these words and sentences. This season Pit & Balcony has been pushing the boundaries with their plays; and Blithe Spirit falls perfectly in line with that.”

Call 754-6587 for tickets or order online a pitanbalconytheatre.com

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