Soulstice offers a leaden “Blithe Spirit”

The company's production of Noel Coward's 1941 comedy is more creaky than classic.

By - Nov 4th, 2012 11:08 am
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LIz Mistele & Stephen Pfisterer perform in Soulstice Theatre’s “Blithe Spirit.” Photo courtesy of the company.

We all welcome a good classic. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown; It’s a Wonderful Life; Miracle on 34th Street give you that cozy, nostalgic warmth.

Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit may have invited that sense back in 1941, when Coward wrote it as a light comfort for the British during the dark days of World War II. The play has survived since, in many revivals and adaptations. But the Soulstice Theatre’s production, directed by Char Manny, felt more antiquated than vintage.

Coward’s language announces class, time and place (Kent, England, summer 1939), in such phrases as “because they’re dreary” and “I find it entirely enchanting.” No problem — Blithe Spirit is a period piece. The problem is characters that become one-dimensional within their setting.

The play opens on Charles and Ruth Condomine (Stephen Pfisterer and Shannon Tyburski) preparing for their guests, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Joe Krapf and Stephanie Graham). We quickly learn of Charles’ deceased ex-wife, Elvira (Jillian Smith). Ruth insists she feels no jealousy. Charles and Ruth banter for a long while, discussing Elvira and their anticipated guest Madame Arcati (Liz Mistele). Charles has invited Madame to conduct a séance to gain inspiration for his next book.

Charles caught between two wives (Shannon Tyburski & Jillian Smith). Photo courtesy of Soulstice Theatre.

Coward’s dialog can sparkle on the lips of the right actors. But when the Bradmans arrive, the two couples join in a perfectly lifeless conversation. They sip dry martinis, chuckle politely at one another, and generally behave in a snooty manner. Again, this type of scene can work, but not when delivered in such a straight, tiresome way.

Mistele’s Madame Arcati shakes things up a bit, although her behavior is a bit predictable. She’s dressed eccentrically, complete with a gypsy-style head wrap. She moves dramatically throughout the room and speaks with a commanding, comical voice. Kudos to Mistele, she may have shined more for providing relief from the rest of the show.

During the séance, Madame accidentally conjures the ghost of the late Elvira. Charles alone can detect her. Ruth becomes confused and infuriated when Charles speaks rudely, believing his comment is aimed at her rather than the invisible. Bickering borne of errant perception and ghostly, farcical confusion dominates the remainder of the play.

As a 21st-century woman, some of these interactions perplexed and offended me. But maybe I’m too distant from 1941 to appreciate the charm in the dialog, or perhaps this cast just didn’t convey that charm. I have a hard time with Charles referring to both women as “my child” or “poor child” or telling them “you’re acting childish.” They only sort-of reacted to his condescending remarks, and continued in very whiny, shrill tones. In the same regard, he would tell them “behave yourself” or “be a good girl.” And these women continued to fawn over him while despising each other.

The second act continued in the same fashion, and because there’s a spoiler, I won’t delineate. Suffice it to say there’s a lot of yelling and few weak plot turns. Mrs. Bradman actually says “servants are awful” in a moment of horrifying antiquity. Charles adds to his chauvinism by telling Ruth she’s suffering from “melodramatic hysteria” even though, you know, his ex-wife’s ghost is living in the house.

He says “I’d hope we’d all get a bit of fun out of it.” Well, no. We didn’t.

Blithe Spirit runs Sat. Nov. 3 and Fri. and Sat. Nov. 9, 10, 16, & 17 at 7:30 p.m. at Soulstice Theatre in St. Francis. Tickets are $18, call 414-481-2800 or purchase online.

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