Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” has been a crowd favorite since it debuted in 1941, eventually becoming part of the modern-day theater canon. Vagabond Players is the latest local company to present the British comedy, and its adaptation is indeed well done, thanks to polished production elements and some stellar acting. However, the “funny” misogyny of this 78-year-old play falls flat in the #MeToo era.
The focal point of the comic fantasy is Charles Condomine (Eric C. Stein), an author gathering research for his next book by inviting local medium Madam Arcati (Maribeth Vogel) to his home for a seance. He doesn’t really believe in her practice, and gets thrown for a loop when the activity conjures the ghost of his first wife, Elvira (Kerry Brady), who does not get along with his current wife, Ruth (Barbara Madison Hauck).
The women fight with Charles and with each other, trying to win Charles’ affections–Elvira wants him to join her in death and Ruth wants him to banish Elvira back to the afterlife. Charles toys with the idea of keeping them both, but neither woman will have it. Subsequent seances create more issues, culminating in a new reality for Charles.
Vagabond’s performance of the play shines on many levels, in particular the production elements and quality of acting. Roy Steinman’s set is a beautifully, period-appropriate formal living room, complete with a floor that successfully mimics black-and-white marble. Equally beautiful are the costumes by Mary Bova, spotlights by Adrienne Giesz and staging by Steve Goldklang.
I can appreciate the sharp dialogue and creative story structure of this old favorite, but the current theater climate, which is rich with thought-provoking work and novel interpretations by non-white men, has spoiled me for wanting to be moved by new perspectives. “Blithe Spirit,” unfortunately, feels out of touch, using the same jokes that landed with 1941 audiences who still drank dry martinis when they were pregnant, or even 2015 audiences who didn’t lose their jobs when they harassed subordinates. The misogyny in the show is a well-worn rug that needs to either be re-hooked or just thrown away already.
Charles constantly shouts “shut up” at Ruth and Elvira, and oscillates between belittling them and showing affection. Stein, a strong actor, chooses to wholeheartedly embrace Charles’ callousness. The “comic” aspect of the character misses the mark, at least for me; there were white, senior citizen audience members who seemed to still find those aspects of the play funny. There is other standard sexist humor in Coward’s script, like body shaming the maid, Edith (played with fun physical comedy by Alyssa Wellman Houde), and characterizing the wives as either a whore or a nag.
A character that seems fresh is living wife Ruth, thanks to Hauck’s nuanced interpretation of her as an intelligent, capable woman who shows empathy to her bellicose husband. In Hauck’s hands, Ruth is a strong, sympathetic character trying to keep her home together rather than a harpy.
Brady’s Elvira is a reincarnation of a silver screen leading lady, gliding around stage with a cool confidence. My date actually said seeing the play felt like watching a classic Hollywood movie.
Vogel’s facial expressions are spot on as Madam Arcati, but I wish she had settled into her character more to take advantage of comic opportunities.
Overall, the talented cast gives strong performances in this polished production of “Blithe Spirit,” but while Vagabond’s production is very good, it’s not very novel.
“Blithe Spirit” runs through May 12 at Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway. For tickets and more information: vagabondplayers.org