Saturday, January 10, 2015

"Blithe Spirit" at Lyric Arts

On a cold and snowy winter evening, I made my way through the slow and busy highways and streets to Lyric Arts Main Street Stage in Anoka. It was a long and unpleasant drive - but this is Minnesota, that's what we do. Once inside the warm and inviting theater, I forgot all about the frozen snowy world outside as I was immersed in the ghostly antics of a sophisticated English gentleman and his two wives, one living and one dead. Lyric Arts' production of English playwright Noël Coward's classic comedy Blithe Spirit is funny and charming, with a perfect cast under the direction of Robert Neu, who sets an appropriate tone that's equally charming and silly, and spot-on set and costumes. i.e., it's a welcome respite from this cold midwinter.

In Blithe Spirit, Charles and Ruth Comdomine live a happy peaceful life in their summer home in the English countryside, despite having to train in a rather incompetent new maid Edith. All of this changes one evening when Charles invites a medium named Madame Arcati to the house to conduct a séance, as research for a new book he's writing. Charles and Ruth, along with their friends George and Violet whom they also invite to the séance, view the whole thing with skepticism, and struggle to hold back their laughter as Madame Arcati goes through her process of contacting the dead. After the business is finished, the party breaks up and everyone laughs at the amusement of the evening. Except for Charles, who has begun to hear and then see his late wife Elvira. Ruth believes her husband is ill or insane, until he convinces her of the reality of the ghost, when she becomes upset not just because there's a ghost in the house, but because Charles seems to enjoy being reunited with his former love. Ruth attempts to rid their lives of Elvira, but Elvira has plans of her own.

the love triangle that crosses death
(Jessica Scott, Ryan Nielson, and Allie Munson)
The word blithe is not commonly used in American speech (although occasionally in musicals: "blithe smile, lithe limb, she who's winsome, she wins him"). But this word, meaning "showing a casual and cheerful indifference considered to be callous or improper," is the perfect word to describe the ghostly Elvira. She floats into Charles and Ruth's life on a breeze, all smiles and giggles, and doesn't care about the disruption she's causing, so happy is she to be back in her home with her husband. This spirit is perfectly embodied by Allie Munson; her Elvira is a lovely and ethereal apparition, somehow charming despite the ruckus she's causing to our happy couple. As said couple, Ryan Nielson and Jessica Scott are perfectly charming and sophisticated as Charles and Ruth, until their life becomes a bit derailed upon the arrival of Elvira, and their voices and tempers raise in a properly English sort of way.

The show is extremely well cast from top to bottom, and everyone in the cast sports a deliciously exaggerated accent. While it does not appear that Madame Arcati is a role usually played by a man, in the case of Grif Sadow, it's an inspired choice. He's an absolute hoot as Madame Arcati goes through her strange rituals and trances, but without making the character a complete joke as it becomes obvious that she's for real. Last but not least, Hannah Weinberg is quite the scene-stealer as Edith, the maid who tries so hard to please but can't help bounding from one task to the next in a manner not at all matching the sophistication of her employers. She makes the most of every moment, drawing it out for maximum laughs, highlighted by a hilariously torturous clearing of the breakfast table.

Mark Koski's set is a very real-looking, charming, and detailed room in an English home (perhaps a drawing room, in Downton Abbey terms), complete with books on the shelves, a fireplace, a sofa and sitting area, a gramophone, lush curtains on the patio doors, and most importantly, a fully stocked bar. Samantha Fromm Haddow's '40s period costumes are all lovely and help to define each character, but Elvira's dress is the pièce de résistance. A pale grey that matches her delicately beautiful make-up, the light and layered dress floats around the stage in a perfectly ghostly sort of way.

"If you think that community theater in Anoka isn't good or popular, then you simply haven't seen it recently." So says Alan Berks in his editor's note on the newly revamped website Minnesota Playlist, and I couldn't agree more. Blithe Spirit is a great example of this; there's virtually no difference between this production and something you might see on a professional stage in Minneapolis. But do note the "popular" part of the above statement; Lyric Arts shows have a tendency to sell out their relatively few performances in a run, so make plans now (discount tickets available on Goldstar) to see this charming, funny, well-done escapist comedy (written in 1941 as an escape from war, it works as an escape from winter too).