Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Farcical “Blithe Spirit” @ The Fine Arts Association

Noël Coward, the author of “Blithe Spirit,” now on stage at The Fine Arts Association in Willoughby, is noted for his wit.  The author of over 50 plays, many of which he starred in himself, he was also a composer, actor, and singer.  His satirical song, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” which he often performed in his concerts, was classic Coward.  It made fun of the uptight Brits, their penance for following custom, and their love of the “empire.” 

Many of his plays, such as “Hay Fever,” “Private Lives, “Design for Living,” and “Present Laughter,” are considered classics of world theatre, produced over and over by professional, educational and amateur theatres.  They are all high comedies, often farces, many were domestic in nature, garnering the title, “drawing room comedies.” 

A closeted homosexual, he was referred to as a “congenital bachelor.” He often took on subjects which drove censors of the 20s and 30s mad.  He continued his playfulness well into the 60s, much to the delight of audiences. 

His works are British through and through.

“Blithe Spirit” centers on a series of incidents which some think is based on a combination of his own search to find out about the occult, his desire to write a play about clairvoyance, his wanting to make fun of writers, and a way to banner his views of marriage.

The storyline centers on Charles Condomine, a snobbish British socialite and novelist.  In his desire to write a book about clairvoyance, he invites his neighbor, the eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, to conduct a séance at his home.  His present wife and two very British friends, a doctor and his wife, are present.  None are believers in mysticism, and make snide comments about the whole event. 

The séance gets out of control when Madame Arcati actually summons Elvira, Charles’ dead wife from the “in between.”  Only Charles can see or hear Elvira.  The often annoying and temperamental first wife attempts to destroy his marriage to second wife, Ruth.  As Charles talks to Elvira, Ruth takes his words as critiques and remarks about her.  When he finally tells Ruth that Elvira is present, she fails to believe him.  She becomes reluctantly convinced when Elvira brings her a vase of flowers, lifts and replaces objects, and causes general chaos.

Farcical incidents happen, an accident accidently kills Ruth, but she is soon back as a “ghost.”  Eventually, after Madame Arcati is able to rid the house of the two mirages, the tale seems to come to its merry end.  Seems to, but who knows?

“Blithe Spirit” is a British comedic farce.  This genre is very difficult to direct and perform.  The Brits have a way of putting things that doesn’t lend itself to American senses of humor.  They like overdone reality.  They require fidelity to realism, but exaggerate in a subtle way that makes for a less is more pattern that is often hard for non-Brits to achieve.  They make an art out of door slamming, over-exaggeration of the trivial, and saying biting things with a tongue-in-cheek attitude.

In other words, Coward and his modern colleagues write plays that are very, very hard to present in a way that makes them as funny as they have to be. 

Many American amateur and even some professional companies stay away from Coward’s works because, even though they read well on paper, are nearly impossible to stage.  English accents must be exact, but not overdone, clear enough for the untrained Yank ear to understand.  The pacing must be alternately over and under done, depending on whether the scene is comical or farcical.  The characterizations must be realistic, real people, not being superficially presented as these people are perceived to be.  Gestures and facial expressions must be British.  Sometimes stoic, sometimes condescending, yet always in character, and natural, not faked.  This is a rough task. Why the powers that be at FAA selected such a difficult play is a mystery.

The director and cast of the Fine Arts Association’s “Blithe Spirit” try hard, but are over matched by the requirements of the script.  Congratulations to Nicole Alponat, Cami Blanchard, Justin Steck, Korbin James Lashley, Leah Smith, Marcia Mandell, Angela Savochka and director James Mango for a great effort.

Michael Roesch’s set design is excellent.  The accents were consistent, though a little overdone.  The pacing was generally good, but the production was slowed down by the extremely long blackouts between the scenes.  Some of the farce shticks worked, especially in the play’s last scene.

Capsule judgement:  “Blithe Spirit” is considered by theatre experts to be one of Coward’s greatest farces.  Though the director and cast at The Fine Arts Association give it a “pip, pip, hurrah” effort, they just can’t overcome the barriers created by picking a script with such high level of directing and performance requirements.

Tickets for “Blithe Spirit,” which runs through October 26, 2014 can be ordered at 440-951-7500 or online: http://www.fineartsassociation.org