Monmouth's sharpness shines in Coward's Blithe Spirit

Let the Spirit linger
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  August 17, 2011

A GLIMPSE OF THE OCCULT How the unseen half live.

It wouldn't be summer without a ghost story or two, though the currently one up in Monmouth has nothing to do with campfires and s'mores. In this classic show at the Theater at Monmouth, the flames are contained in an estate's marble fireplace, and the goodies served there include dry martinis and cucumber sandwiches. Yep, it's Brits who are haunted, and their reactions are as dry as the gin in Noël Coward's comedy Blithe Spirit.

Whence the spirit? Well, Charles, a writer (Paul Joseph Bernardo), wants to experience a seance to get notes for a novel, so he and his wife Ruth (Denise Poirier) invite over the gloriously idiosyncratic Madame Arcati (Grace Bauer) to do her thing for them and another couple, the Bradmans (Uriel Menson and Elizabeth Helitzer). But despite Madame Arcati's best dramatics and some bracing spasms of the seance table, everyone is disappointed that nothing paranormal seems to have happened. Everyone, that is, but Charles. Turns out you probably shouldn't have an in-depth conversation about your dead first wife just a few hours before dipping into the spirit world. Not unless you — and your new wife — really want her installed as part of the household.

For install herself the still-young Elvira (Ambien Mitchell) does, leading the distressed Ruth to smear Charles as "some sort of astral bigamist." Ah, the British.

Monmouth's production, directed by Davis Robinson, nicely conjures the tone and home decor of the British aristocracy. The luxurious living room, designed by Robert Sweetnum, features dark wood molding, a piano, exquisite chairs upholstered in mustard and jade, and leather-bound books embossed with gold leaf. Twilight is a lovely hue through the French doors. And those who inhabit all this naturally exude wry entitlement (though their martinis seem a little short, to my eye) and deliver the quintessence of Coward's witty snark.

What a treat to watch Poirier — a favorite Maine actor now based in New York, but spending the summer with Monmouth — as Ruth, a role made for her. She simply drips with droll irony and disdain, often communicating as if in asides, rolling her eyes away from her husband. As Charles, Bernardo is not as luxuriously sardonic, and his accent is a bit fishy, but his exasperation reaches entertaining heights as he contends with the women, both corporeal and ghostly.

And as Elvira, the ghostly one, Mitchell is vivaciously devilish. Sleek and lanky in a ghost-colored evening dress, she has startlingly wide and intent eyes, and the wild laughter of an enfant terrible. She sulks, pouts, and cajoles, and her long fingers wriggle constantly, as if in scheme or anticipation. Facing Mitchell and Poirier off as the foiling wives is a great bit of casting; together they contrast beautifully the dynamics of younger marriage versus older, a point of comparison Ruth and Charles discuss expansively and oh-so-maturely at the play's opening.

As the medium who brings all the madness about, Bauer is pitch-perfect — jolly, no-nonsense, and fruity, all at once, and there's some fun comic work here in Jeanne Joe Perrone's maid, Edith, whose haste and lack of grace make her bosses wary. Another supporting role, Helitzer's Violent Bradman, is very nicely done; her open face and smiling candor throughout the visit with Madame Arcati pose another contrast to Ruth's artful affectations.

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