Coward brings the upper class down a notch

Finding the medium
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  January 16, 2013

BREAKING DOWN CLASS POMPOSITY Frivolity and peevishness highlight the New Hampshire Theater Project's portrayals of the upper class in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit.

The most sympathetic character in Noel Coward's snarky little farce, Blithe Spirit, is neither the "astral bigamist" Charles Condomine nor the petulant ghost of his first wife Elvira, nor even his beleaguered current wife Ruth. These three main characters are all, more or less, petty, self-satisfied, and condescending blue-bloods, people who like to complain about the help. The play's only truly likeable character is the spunky medium who comes to dinner, the cheerful, pragmatic spiritualist Madame Arcati, and in a production by the New Hampshire Theatre Project (under the direction of Blair Hundertmark), the performances make abundantly clear how unattractive these conventional upper-class personalities can be.

That's not always so much the case with Blithe Spirit — sometimes Charles, Ruth, and Elvira have a fundamental attractiveness through which we admire their wit — but in these portrayals, the characters' frivolousness and peevishness are often in full bloom. In their nicely appointed living room of lovely upholstery, Oriental rugs, a gramophone, and a glowing fireplace (set design by Cary Wendell), Peter Motson's Charles and Kathy Somssich's Ruth seem most at ease when they're tittering smugly about either Madame Arcati (Genevieve Aichele) or the maladroit maid (Becky Rudolf, with some fine deadpan comedy). At least their friend Mrs. Bradman (Kate Kirkwood), who comes over with her doctor husband (Rob Becker) for dinner and a séance, has a genuine if featherbrained eagerness to experience the occult. But the Condomines' superciliousness lets us look forward to their protoplasmic comeuppance.

The woman who inadvertently brings Elvira back stands in dramatic contrast to those in the love triangle: In Aichele's excellent hands, Madame Arcati is brisk, forthright, jauntily competent, and eminently charming. Her tall, lean frame glittering in pink, gold, and magenta Asian brocades, Aichele gives Arcati a sharp and very entertaining mix of matter-of-factness and spiritualism. Sometimes Arcati comes off as a laughable character; this one we laugh more with than at, as she's far more respectable — tolerant, reasonable, good-spirited — than any of the Condomines. Even when she feels her arts denigrated by Mrs. Bradford's vapid enthusiasm for fortune-telling, her chastening responses are more teaching moment than dressing-down. And her séance manner is a treat: In full dark, her voice — calling the spirits, singing, placating a spirit child with a cold — is rich, surprising, and completely endearing. All in all, Aichele's Arcati is absolutely a delight.

The ghost she brings back doesn't make astral bigamy look alluring for even a moment: Right off the bat, Heather Glenn Wixson's Elvira shows herself to be rather unappealing trouble. Though she wears a beautifully ethereal gown of pearl grey and silver velvet, her affect is a sort of simpering, affected impetuousness, and her ghostly pallor looks more chalky than unearthly. She mugs for Charles, sneers at Ruth and Arcati, squeaks out insults, and holds her arms and hands in ostentatious ghost-gestures. As Charles cozily reacquaints with her, breezily trying to justify this new triangular domestic arrangement to the increasingly addled Ruth, we can only think that perhaps they deserve each other.

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  Topics: Theater , Noel Coward, Blair Hundertmark, New Hampshire Theatre Project,  More more >
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