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REVIEW: Spritely Spirit, Classic Laughter in Blithe Spirit (Guthrie Theater)

Amy Warner (Mrs. Bradman), Bob Davis (Dr. Bradman), Sally Wingert (Madame Arcati) and Quinn Mattfeld (Charles Condomine) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward. Photo by Dan Norman.

Noël Coward’s comedy Blithe Spirit is the ghost that keeps on giving. On Friday, the Guthrie Theater opened its hilarious new production of this classic Noël Coward play.

Coward was a prolific playwright and one of the more influential voices in mid-century American entertainment. His plays from the mid-20th-century are especially renown for their witty repartee, influencing and inspiring countless TV sitcom episodes. Some of these have aged better than others – most notably Private Lives, where incessant domestic violence is a turnoff – several have persisted with hilarious fun. One of these is Blithe Spirit. Director David Ivers helms the Guthrie’s well-paced, spirited production of this comedy classic.

Charles Condomine (Quinn Mattfeld) finds his life complicated by his wives Ruth (Heidi Armbruster) and Elvira (Elia Monte-Brown), one of whom is deceased. Photo by Dan Norman.

The play’s plot revolves around Charles Condomine (Quinn Mattfeld) and his second wife Ruth (Heidi Armbruster). Charles and Ruth are an upper middle-class couple, both on their second marriage, and in the process of breaking in a new maid by the name of Edith (Suzanne Warmanen). Charles is a writer working on a book about the occult. He and Ruth invite friends Dr. Bradman (Bob Davis) and his wife (Amy Warner) to join them in a séance as part of his book research. With the help of the spiritual medium Madame Arcati (Sally Wingert), the group begin the séance – only for Charles’ first wife, the deceased Elvira (Ella Monte-Brown), to make an appearance. Without giving away the ending, the play continues with the meddlesome angst that Charles faces when he has to live with both his first deceased wife and his second wife. Warmanen, as the maid, has few lines but provides much of the physical humor for the show.

The acting in this production is top notch. Sally Wingert is, as usual, a consummate scene-stealer. (With all of her stellar performances this year, I am running out of adjectives to describe Wingert’s work.) Her portrayal of a somewhat wacky but sincere medium is convincing and highly amusing, especially when she learns that she actually brought someone back from “the other side.” Mattfeld, playing the beleaguered Charles, does an admirable job with witty jabs as he balances three-way conversations with both wives. Monte-Brown, playing the spoiled but lonely Elvira, is a worthy foil for Charles’ jabs. Armbruster (Ruth) excels in showing a domineering wife who is determined not to brook interferences from her husband’s deceased but still needy prior spouse.

The first act of the show starts out slow and rather dry, but reaches an exciting climax with the entrance of Elvira. The show’s wildest moments are in the second act where, with rapid-fire delivery, Charles and his two wives engage in uproarious banter forcing the audience to stay on its toes to catch all of it. The last fifteen minutes of the play are relatively anti-climatic, but that may just be because the audience is worn out from all of the previous laughs.

Charles Condomine (Quinn Mattfeld) and Madame Arcati (Sally Wingert) ponder the messes that the living and the dead can make. Photo by Dan Norman.

Scenic designer Jo Winarski has crafted a lively blue tone art deco set right out of the 1930s. Costume designer Meg Neville excels with a set of highly varied costumes, from Madame Arcati’s colorful gypsy gown to Ruth’s 1930s fashions. The grayness of Elvira’s costume, along with her gray hair, skin, and special lighting, create an other-worldness quality as if she had walked off a 1930s movie screen (as happened with a character in the movie The Purple Rose of Cairo).

The premiere of Blithe Spirit was originally produced just months after World War II, a work designed to help take people’s minds off of the horrors of the war. The Guthrie’s production similarly provides a wonderful, laugh-filled escape from today’s current woes.

Blithe Spirit plays through January 14 at the Guthrie Theater’s McGuire Proscenium Stage in Minneapolis, MN.

Bev Wolfe