Sitting: Andy Epstein, Jennifer Poliskie, Jack Wallen, Hannah Jones Thomas. Standing: Kimberly Vaughn in Blithe Spirit. Photo: Chicken Coop
By Noel Coward
Directed by Kathryn Paris Meade
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
In Blithe Spirit, Noel Coward invented the modern ghost comedy, merging the supernatural with domestic comedy that creates a through line to the terrific, under-the-radar British movie, Truly, Madly, Deeply. But the snooty, upper crust tone of the piece is crucial to making it work today. If you don’t succeed in that, I’m not sure the play works.
This Chicken Coop Theatre production mostly does succeed. It achieves the style necessary to capture Coward’s sensibility and satirical intention and creates enough space to contemplate the text in a new light.
The first scenes are dominated by Jack Wallen and Jennifer Poliskie as Charles and Ruth Condomine, and they immediately establish a rhythm and energy that the production as a whole struggles to sustain. For a while we just enjoy watching them nail the smug self-satisfaction and sense of entitlement that is trademark Noel Coward. Adopting a mid-Atlantic dialect that conjures up the vocal texture of 1930’s Hollywood, there is a snap to the dialogue that makes Coward Coward.
Charles has invited a spiritualist, Madame Arcati (Kymberly Vaughn) to conduct a seance as research for his new novel. He and Ruth, as well as their guests, Dr. and Mrs Bradman (Andy Epstein and Hannah Jones Thomas) are skeptics, but the experience actually produces the ghost of his first wife, Elivira (Anna Meade), who can only be seen or heard by Charles. Not surprisingly, the apparition places stress and strain on the Condomine’s marriage.
It can seem like familiar situation comedy now, but 80 years ago it was fresh and even a little controversial, dividing critics but providng a commercial success. Watching it now, the gimmick of supernatural visitations of past lovers seems to foreshadow the rise of the rate of divorce in Western society. We are never rid of the past, whatever efforts we make to get away from it.
Director Kathy Paris Meade also designed the set, and it does good service, but Mandy Kramer’s costumes accomplish the most in communicating period and upper class elegance. Ruth’s clingy violet gown was a highlight on this point, and there is a nice distinction between the more restrictive fashion of the living and the loose, flowing materials for Elvira. Kevin Gawley’s lighting is a key part of selling the supernatural elements.
Poliskie and Wallen set a high standard, and the other cast members follow closely. Anna Meade is delightfully mischievous as Elvira, although her good work isn’t helped by her heavy spectral make-up. Kymberly Vaughn plays Madame Arcati with a fine sense of the absurd and doesn’t take the bait in overplaying the broadly drawn character. Make no mistake, she makes the most of the opportunity for verbal and physical slapstick, but she also has the discipline to keep Arcati from being a clown.
Andy Epstein and Hannah Jones Thomas are veterans who know how to keep secondary characters from dropping into the background, playing Coward’s wit and exploiting the details in the Bradmans. Coward doesn’t let any character remain a plot device, and Katherine Summerfield as the Condomine’s servant, Edith, proves more material by the play’s end than her scant time on stage until then would suggest.
The playing was good, yet a lengthy scene between Charles and Elvira late in act two felt long and broke the momentum. It underscores how finely tuned the writing is and how even a smart and skilled cast can let the tension go slack.
Still, this is overall a sterling production that at least understands what is required here. If this is your first encounter with Noel Coward, you can trust that you are in good hands and will have great fun.
Featuring Andy Epstein, Anna Meade, Jennifer Poliskie, Katherine Summerfield, Hannah Jones Thomas, Kymberly Vaughn, Jack Wallen
October 27, 28, 29 November 3, 4, & 5 @ 7:30 pm
October 30 & November 6 @ 2:00 pm
The Chicken Coop Theatre Company
Kentucky Performing Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.