“Blithe Spirit” is the comedy cocktail for the stressed out soul

Photo by Dan Norman, courtesy of the Guthrie Theater

By Lianna Matt

The characters of the Noël Coward’s 1941 play “Blithe Spirit” would like to invite you to Kent, England, for a dry martini and a seance. Or rather, you’re going to watch them drink it as they conjure the dead. And talk about love. And try to untangle themselves from a farce. With absurdity, comebacks and affluent society, “Blithe Spirit” could be campy, but it’s not. It’s hilarious, and it’s at the Guthrie Theater in downtown Minneapolis from Nov. 25-Jan. 14.

Here’s the setup: Author Charles Condomine hosts a seance with his second wife, Ruth, to learn the “tricks of the trade” and compose a believable medium for his upcoming book. The problem? Madame Arcati, for all her eccentricities, is the real deal. She brought back Charles’ first wife, Elvira, who isn’t planning on leaving anytime soon.

The audience may expect a more laugh-out-loud comedy after seeing the maid, Edith (Suzanne M. Warmanen) waltzing around as she tidies up the set at the beginning, but it’s the micromanaged interactions, sniping comments and incredulous looks at the audience that must sustain the show across all three acts. The most delightful moments are where attempted airs clash with childish reactions. 

Case in point? Take the argument that the unamused and put-together Ruth, played by Heidi Armbruster, has with Charles (Quinn Mattfeld) the day after the seance. If you can’t hear him over the clinking of your spoon in your teacup, can he really bother you? Or look at Elvira, played with sprite-like flirtatiousness by Elia Monte-Brown, as she moves about the room so that Armbruster, who can’t see her, is raging at thin air.

Mattfeld’s performance as a somewhat pompous and exasperated Charles is right on target, but the person who “wore the pants” in the play, so to speak, was Sally Wingert, who played spunky and spry Madame Arcati. Costume designer Meg Neville’s wardrobe for her is reminiscent of a tropical bird when she’s on the clock as a medium and somewhat safari-leading when she’s not. However, Wingert never lets the clothes wear her. Indeed, her go-get’em and gleeful attitude, verbal winks and lack of self-consciousness make you more apt to look out for a flailing punch as she charges forth into the supernatural.

Despite Director David Ivers’ efforts and successes at keeping the dialogue sparkling and snappy, the second act gets a bit long. The play doesn’t go out with a whimper, though. The last scene injects one final, grandiose burst of concentrated energy onto the stage, courtesy of scenic designer Jo Winiarski. “Blithe Spirit” may slow down along the way, but its cocktail of clever pettiness and simple humor is the best balm for any stressed out person going into the holiday and winter seasons.


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