Bag&Baggage’s 2018-2019 season officially focuses on love, “LOVE. THRILLS. MAGIC. WONDER. CHANGE.” At The Vault, the Hillsboro theater company’s final production of the current season jumps the gun with Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, show that’s just loaded with thrills, magic, wonder, and change (if, courtesy of Coward’s jaundiced view of life, somewhat bereft in the “love” department). Director Scott Palmer is no stranger to Coward’s style of cheerful cynicism, and is thus perfectly suited to shepherd his cast and crew through a fast-paced telling of this supernatural farce that has been raising spirits (literally and figuratively) on stages around the world ever since its debut in war-torn London during the darkest days of World War II.
In the Bag&Baggage production, the story has been moved to the 1980s. Like the playwright who created him, novelist Charles Condomine is skeptical about psychic phenomena; to learn more about the language and tricks of the trade for his next book, he invites local medium Madame Arkati to give a séance to entertain himself, his wife Ruth, and two friends. Much to the surprise of all, there are definite supernatural manifestations, and Charles is visited by the ghost of his first wife, Elvira. No one else can see Elvira, and the next morning Ruth writes the whole episode off to Charles’s inebriation until Elvira proves her presence by moving a bowl of flowers around the room. Eager to be rid of her deceased rival, Ruth asks Madame Arkati to get rid Elvira, but the medium is unable to dematerialize the spirit. The story only gets more arcane (and funny) through succeeding acts (there are three, but packed into a relatively short 2½ hours).
Arianne Jacques gets the first laughs as the Condomine’s new maid, Edith, frantically hopping up and down the stairs trying to please her new mistress. She lurks, wide-eyed, as events unfold around her, and sometimes leaves the room only in response to meaningful glares from her employers. Ruth (Cassie Greer) is utterly oblivious to Edith’s confusion, and her complete self-absorption tells us all we need to know about the brittle lady of the house. Greer’s Ruth is coldly, archly uptight, and the performance radiates suppressed rage that explodes nicely when she has finally had enough. Jessi Walters’ Elvira provides a delicious contrast – she may be a ghost, but she’s so flamboyant and mischievous that she actually seems much more colorful and vibrant than the still-living Ruth.
Andrew Beck’s portrayal of Charles Condomine is delightfully effete – stuck between two wives and passionate about neither. He is bright and witty, but ultimately clueless about how to extricate himself from the drama of married life. When Ruth asks him if he found Elvira more attractive, his perfect, languidly delivered retort? “That’s a very tiresome question, darling. It fully deserves a wrong answer.” Kymberli Colbourne’s Madame Arkati is a stunning reinvention of the character. Instead of a ditzy, fluttering British psychic in brightly flowing clothes, she’s a hilariously energetic, somewhat androgynous American with definite overtones of Foghorn Leghorn, bringing unexpected ferocity and physicality to the role.
Melissa Heller’s costumes are perfect – from Colbourne’s quasi-menswear to the flashing lights on Walters’ gaudy gown – and Tyler Buswell’s scenic design creates a nicely 1980s version of an upper-class British drawng room. However, it’s Jim Rick-White’s lighting and technical effects that move the show from well acted and funny to mind-bending. The show is propelled by a combination of mechanical and electronic effects that capture the real magic of Blithe Spirit, constantly surprising the audience with The Vault’s capabilities in the right hands.
Blithe Spirit tickets will sell out quickly, so fans of Coward’s beautifully crafted, witty farce and Scott Palmer’s theatrical ingenuity should buy tickets soon.
Bag&Baggage’s Blithe Spirit is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through May 27th, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees.