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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Blithe Spirit at ISM

Or: British Drawing Room Comedy collides with Mid-Afterlife Crisis at Full Throttle.

This year’s ISF season promises to be dark and villainous, but offering the sort of darkness and villainy one can’t help but fall in with and cheer on. Blithe Spirit, though not quite as edgy as Sweeney Todd or Richard III (lurking about for their later staging),does invite us to take a long look at the hereafter, how we relate to our dead, and what we become when our comfortable worlds are peeled away by the merciless fingernails of the Unseen.

Not that you have to examine these weighty themes if you don’t want to. It is after all written by Noel Coward, master of the barbed observation and backhand compliment, and remains first and foremost a British Drawing-room Comedy. Charles Condomine (Eric Damon Smith), a successful novelist, and his second wife Ruth (Maggie Kettering) are planning a seance in their handsome Kentish home. Neither has any faith in the occult but hope to observe Madam Arcati (Laurie Birmingham), the local eccentric and propertied psychic, in order to gather research for Charles’s next book. Things take a disturbing turn when, during the seance, Charles’s first, deceased, wife Elvira (Shanara Gabrielle) materializes in the house, visible and audible only to the eyes and ears of her former hubby, and showing no particular inclination to pop back to the Great Beyond.

Director Charles Fee and his cast have whole heartedly embraced the spirit of Coward, and roll about in his operatic style of acting. Synchronized huffs, and bodily throwing oneself onto couches or the floor, along with line readings ranging from the depth and hight of human pitch are to be accepted and embraced. It minimizes the tragedy and tenderness of the play but increases the humor tenfold. Fee once again proves himself a master of directing energy throughout the space at lightning speed. The audience’s focus chases and switches between the characters as they dash about the space, but is never once split or allowed to languish in dead space.

The shining center of this production pins itself directly on Birmingham’s performance. Normally portrayed as a tottering old biddy with a penchant for genial rambling, Madam Arcati has recreated herself as an explorer: one piped full of energy, relishing the, very real, dangers that come from her profession, and more than a little sharp with anyone who dares come close to questioning her talents. The affect is that of Rowling’s Madam Trelawney possessed by consciousness of Fellow’s Violet, Countess of Grantham and recently returned from five years living in the wilderness off of tree sap and locusts. Birmingham has worked in all sorts additional stage business, physical quirks and phonetic outbursts into Arcati’s behavior. Never overpowering, each addition keeps delighting us with a new treasure pulled from Arcati’s bottomless well of weirdness. Her use of the spray-bottle in particular ought to be enshrined in all future productions of Blithe Spirit, from now to the crack of doom.

As a protagonist, Damon Smith is perfectly built to play Coward Characters. His excellent RP (Standard British Accent) drone and rodential smile craft the perfect lovable twit. Equally well suited to the style is Kettering’s Ruth, who excels even Birmingham, on occasion, for carefully constructed and sidesplittingly funny stage business. Her many ‘spit-less spit takes’, ranging from the defiant uncrossing of a leg to a full body collapse, as well as her gnawing mimicry of her fellow cast members, earn her a golden star for investment and ingenuity.

As for Gabrielle, the flirtatious ghost shimmers her way across the stage through a number of delightful attitudes. A creature of grace, Elvira can slide from vivaciousness to scorn to woebegoneness to lewd delight in as little time as it takes to blink.

Another performance of note is that of Edith (Jodi Dominic) the Condomine’s bumbling maid. Though given relatively little stage time, and mostly restricted to “Yeas’m” and “No’zir” for dialog, Fee brings Edith in as a set changer and pallet cleanser. In-between scenes Edith puts the living room to rights using the most precarious and klutzy methods, (methods that can only be accomplished successfully by the really really coordinated) that leave us in chortles or biting our nails in anticipation of smashing glass and china. In addition as we see this peculiar tale of “astro bigamy” unfold, we see poor Edith, with not a feather of a notion of what’s going on, trying to sneak past her employers and keep the household running. The effect is sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching and sometimes deeply disturbing, and often times all three. Dominic fully deserves each and every spontaneous eruption of applause she received from this evenings crowd.

With its heightened performance and peculiar arc (requiring two intermissions) Blithe Spirit is a kind of show that ISF audiences have not seen in many a year. However it is sure to delight all tastes, tickle all funny bones, astound all those who take interest in the craft of performance, and, for those who see beyond all the witticisms and hilarity to a stage strewn with crushed hope and spattered ectoplasm, there is enough philosophy to chew on as well.

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