Thursday, April 14, 2011

Theatrical Review: Blithe Spirit

Theatrical Review: Blithe Spirit
Written by: Sir Noël Peirce Coward
Directed by: Stephanie French
Theatrical Review by: Paul Adam Smeltz

“HAIL to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert—
That from heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.”

From “To a Skylark” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

The East Stroudsburg University (ESU) Department of Theatre and Stage II presented their production of “Blithe Spirit” written by Sir Noël Peirce Coward who was well known as a versatile creative force especially during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Not only was he a playwright, he also acted and directed a number of productions and composed several songs which were equally popular. His plays became known for their wit and flamboyant style which reflected his own personality traits. He was knighted in 1969 and continued writing until shortly before the time of his death in 1973 at the age of 74.

As with almost all productions presented at ESU, the first experience of the play the audience encounters it the well designed and visually stunning set. The scene created for “Blithe Spirit” is no exception. The scenic designer and the construction crew who built the walls, floors, staircase, and other fixtures didn’t just decorate the stage, but built a house in which became a well pronounced character contributing its impressive attributes to the play. Several audience members were seen stumbling while taking their seats as their attentions were consistently distracted by the shear scope and detail of what lied before them on stage.

However, presenting this degree of detail and craftsmanship upon a stage is a very risky venture. It brings the expectations of what the audience will experience once the play begins to a very high level. If the acting or blocking of the play doesn’t meet the scene’s standards, a great disappointment may become prevalent in spite of the fact the theatrical experience would have been very satisfying with a more modest approach to the set’s design. But, as this reviewer is pleased to report, this was not a concern for this production as the acting and direction not only met the expectations created by the scenic design but exceeded them to a great degree.

“Blithe Spirit” was written in 1941 during the WWII bombing of London and was first presented in the city’s theatrical district known as the “West End” where it set a record for non-musical British plays with nearly 2000 performances. It ran for over 650 performances in the New York, NY theatre district known as Broadway and adapted was to film in 1945. Noel Coward also created a musical version of the play titled “High Spirits” which appeared on Broadway in 1964. The title of the play is taken from the poem “To a Skylark” written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1820.

“Blithe Spirit” has often been served as a shining example of a comedic style known as “comedy of Manners” or “Bedroom Comedy” which are considered the highest form of comedy. The lowest forms are often said to be “Puns” and “Slapstick.” Perhaps this is because they generally get more laughs from a larger spectrum of people. Regardless of one’s understanding of comedy or one’s level in regards to their sense of humor, this production manages to mix the sophistication and humor Noel Coward was well known for into a delightful concoction enjoyable to any comedic palate.

The play begins when an author named Charles Condomine (as portrayed by Gabryal Rabinowitz) and his wife Ruth (as portrayed by Kristin Walsh) invites their friends Dr. Bradman (as portrayed by Shamus Halloran) and his wife Mrs. Bradman (as portrayed by Kimberly Konczos) to a séance in order to gather material for a future book relating to the paranormal. Except for the highly infectious comedic entrances made by their maid Edith (as portrayed by Stephanie Clare), the play’s beginning seems rather boring and contains the overly dignified upper crust British traits commonly associated with the well to do citizens of the island nation. However, it is soon revealed these archaic and heavy handed mannerisms merely serves as a counterweight to the frivolity that delightfully dominates the majority of the play.

The entrance of Madame Acarti (as portrayed by Marshall Haskell who also served the production as part of its set construction crew) enlivens the play with her (well his) other worldly presence especially after a few martinis are consumed. This presence of Madame Acarti is soon enhanced by the arrival of the spirit of Charles’ first wife Elvira (as portrayed by Shannon Leigh Christmann). It is interesting to note the play seems rather dull until those akin to the dead show up. As a quote accredited to Sir Noël Peirce Coward presented in the play’s program states, “We have no reliable guarantee that the afterlife will be any less exasperating than this one, have we?” Well, the afterlife may not be “any less exasperating” but it seems those who dwell in it have a bit more fun as they’re able (perhaps due to the lack of the daily cares and social constrictions encountered in the living life) to let their hair down.

The plot of “Blithe Spirit” develops as the relationship between Charles and his long dead wife begins to rekindle. This first concerns his present wife, Ruth, who feels his mental condition is deteriorating. However, once it is proven to her the ghost does exist, she feels the jealousy and frustration known to anyone who ventured into a relationship with someone who has a deceased spouse. It is quite unsettling to have one’s attempts to gain undivided attention and affection when there’s an unseen and irreproachable pedestaled entity in their midst.

However, Ruth does not sit idly by while her husband is our “dilly dallying” (did I really write that?) about with his former wife. She soon contacts Madame Acarti and plots to get rid her undead rival once and for all. She is also not above telling her rival off through a series of angry exchanges which are often misdirected as she doesn’t have any idea where Elvira is at any given point in time. All this adds to the comic effect of the work and it is presented with great deal of relish by the cast. The sense the actors truly enjoyed themselves while being on stage made them a joy to watch.

The play was further enhanced by musical performances of several songs written by Sir Noël Peirce Coward. These songs were sung by members of the cast along with Karen Guilliams (who served the production by providing Sound Effects) and Paula Dixon creating a zeitgeist allowing the audience to place themselves in the times the play was written and first presented. It is rumored the director replaced some scenes from the original work in order to include the songs.

This directorial act may stir some degree of controversy as many theatrical purists feel all works should be presented on stage as written by the playwright unaltered. However, this seldom happens as even the best of actors often forget every single word they’re given in a script and occasionally resort to adlibbing a few words or sentences here and there. This is recognized as acceptable as long as the actor stays in character and it doesn’t cause other actors to forget their lines. There is also a school of thought the director may override the script in order to reveal a more meaningful production. This “going off book” is often done to emphasize aspects found through a deeper analysis of the play and not readily apparent in the work as written.

While this reviewer can readily associate himself with either side of the argument, it seems Ms. French’s approach (if the rumor is true) does the Sir Noël Peirce Coward’s work a great service by including his songs to underscore the period and thus bringing an enhanced understanding to a modern audience. These changes (if they occurred as rumored) reflected a deep respect and admiration to the play which was translated well to the audience. It would be quite a challenge to find any member of the audience not wishing to see another Noel Coward play even if they knew of the alleged changes that was made to the work. Of course, if the rumored this reviewer shared is untrue, a reader might rightfully suppose those who originated it is full of what those who practice the art of theatre refer to as “Blockage.” Regardless of this or any other rumor that may be associated with this production, it is a well acted and directed one.

This reviewer seldom mentions the technical aspects of the theatrical art other then those comments directed to the scenic design of the piece due to the fact technical theatre was never my forte. I do know, however, there are certain effects one can gain with lighting that creates a mood along with a sense of time and space. It would be remiss to conclude this review without mention of the uncanny and impressive lighting presented during the production which illustrates this property in textbook exactness. If for no other reason to see this play (and there are a multitude of reasons beyond this one), the effects of lighting can have to enhance a scene should be experienced.

The East Stroudsburg University (ESU) Department of Theatre and Stage II production of “Blithe Spirit” by Sir Noël Peirce Coward was Directed by Stephanie French (who also served as the production’s Vocal Coach as assisted by Michelle Jones) and was assisted with her directorial duties by Felicia Revero who also served the production as a member of the set construction crew. The production was Stage Managed by Jessica Pachuta who also served as one of the production’s Props Assistants. She was assisted by Elyse Burnett and Zenobia Colah who both served the production further as Prop Assistants. Margaret Joyce Ball served the production as its Musical Director and Vocal Coach while Charles Cole served as the production’s pianist. The English Dialect and Cultural Advisor was Patricia McKenzie.

Yoshinori Tanokura designed the set as assisted by Tiffany Cruz (who also was a part of the Set Construction Crew and was a scenic artist) and Costumes as assisted by Ahleea Zama and Gillian Reinartz. The Lighting was designed by Wilburn Bonnell while Robert McIntyre served as the production‘s Master Electrician (as well as a member of the production’s Set Construction Crew) and was assisted by Katie Dembesky, Kelsey Pulzone (who also served as a member of the production’s Set Construction Crew and prop assistant), Mary Dennis (who also served the production as a member of the Set Construction Crew), Tim Carpenter, and Tyler Whitman who was also the production‘s Spotlight Operator. The Light Board Operator was Meg Dowling who also served the production as a member of the Set Construction Crew and Property Master, Michael Thomas was the production’s Technical Director and also served as a member of the production’s Set Construction Crew.

Stephanie Carifi was the production’s Hair and Make Up Designer as assisted by Agnetta Kerchner who both served as Costume and Makeup Artists alongside Sarah Martins. The hairstylist for Elvira was Caitlyn Pulzone. The House Managers were Joey Dougherty and Joey Goldstein while the Box Office Managers were Justin O’ Hearn and Mervant Rivera. The Poster and Program Cover Design for the production was done by Greg Back. Those members of the Set Construction Crew not already mentioned are Eric Lang, Michelle Tuite, Brad Reigner, Paul Cenci, and Spencer Hartey. Yoshi Tanokura was a Scenic Artist and Tyler Adams and Jackie Knollhuff were part of the running crew.

This production of “Blithe Spirit” by Sir Noël Peirce Coward will continue its run at The East Stroudsburg University (ESU) in East Stroudsburg, PA at The University’s Fine and Performing Arts Center in it’s Smith-McFarland Theatre until April 17th and is recommended for those who wish to partake in a theatrical experience from a bygone time that is kept alive. From its beginning with the high powered frantic entrance of Edith who delighted the audience to the superbly droll appearance of Charles, Ruth, and their borderline snobbish friends, to the wildly bizarre Madame Acarti, to Elvira whose spirited manifestation enchants the entire audience toward some otherworldly laughter, this is one play not to be passed over. Please contact The East Stroudsburg University (ESU) Theatre Department at 570-422-3483 for more information about future productions and to reserve your ticket.

Photograph provided by David Dougherty of

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