'Blithe Spirit' starts slow, ends strong

Review: Syracuse Stage's production of 'Blithe Spirit' drags through Act 1 but bursts into hilarity when the action picks up.

Known as “the funniest ghost story ever,” the light-hearted 1940s comedy Blithe Spirit not only made people laugh when they were suffering the pain of war in London’s West End, but also conquered audiences on Broadway and became a classic that has been staged hundreds of times over.

Unlike other classics with complicated plots and profound thoughts, Blithe Spirit owes its enduring fame to its sense of humor.

Photo: Michael Davis | Courtesy of Syracuse Stage
Syracuse Stage opens its 41st season with Noel Coward's classic comedy, "Blithe Spirit," which runs now through Oct. 6

Noël Coward, the author famous for witty dialogues, illustrates the boredom and sentiment of the English at the time. Popular yet elegant, humorous yet deep enough, this piece, which was written over the course of six days, has maintained its place in popular theater for almost 70 years.

It tells the story of Charles (Jeremiah Wiggins), a novelist who intends to collect inspiration for his book about the occult. He employs the services of the eccentric psychic Madam Arcati (Lucida Grande), but his plan to summon the dead backfires hilariously when he actually summons the spirit of his first wife, Elvira (Gisela Chipe).

Taking on the classic play at Syracuse Stage, director Michael Barakiva generally stays faithful to the original while incorporating positive new elements. His choices of music, stage design and costume design successfully recreate the classic.

However, these visual and aural elements alone do not guarantee a high production value. Internal energy and external flow of the show are key.

During the first act, for almost 30 minutes, there are only a few seconds that contain fluent flow and a little bit of energy. Most of the time, the actors are simply reciting Coward’s lines. It should have been a solid establishment of Charles’ characteristics, as well as those of his wife, Ruth (Jody Parsons). However, none of them get to be sufficiently exhibited.

The only bright spot of Act 1 is Antonieta Pereira, who happens to be the only non-professional actor in the cast. Part of the play’s success is thanks to her solid theatrical performance skills. She plays the role of Edith so well that her exaggerated cluelessness won laughter and applause every time she was on stage.

Nevertheless, for a brilliant play like this, the laughter gained in the first act is hardly satisfying.

The decisive turn that takes the show from a dull recitation of the script to an entirely hilarious showcase happens when Elvira’s spirit is summoned. The effectiveness can be partly credited to Coward’s brilliant writing. While he allows Charles to see Elvira’s spirit, it remains invisible to Ruth. The “partly invisible” strategy in depicting ghost scenes produces an outstanding comedic effect.

Wiggins seemed to have experienced a revival since the first act. Charles is acted so restrainedly at times and flamboyantly at others that the performance almost exudes a sense of Coward’s writing style: “a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise” (Time Magazine).

In short, the latter two hours of the show turn out to be a great, awkwardly funny celebration that engages both the audience and the actors.

Regardless of the fact that this farce involves spirits, ghosts and supernatural powers, Blithe Spirit should still be counted as a play that concerns realistic social problems.

Though Ruth dies of a rather vicious prank, the show’s light tone does not change at all. Charles feels no sadness over the loss of Ruth, and he even expresses aversion when her spirit comes back. That he anxiously wants both of his wives to be gone for good reveals the absurdity and nihility of marriage and society. Barakiva properly executes the play with neither too much humor nor too little literary flair.

Blithe Spirit runs Sept. 26 through Oct. 6. Tickets are $18-50 and can be purchased online.

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