WELCOME to holiday theater season, that time of year when every theater ever attempts to pull off the impossible: a seasonally appropriate play that's both entertaining enough to beat out rewatching A Christmas Story at home, and bland enough that you can take your grandmother and your tiniest child relative. Away with the Brecht; all systems are go for Charlie Brown. But Charlie Brown will not be making an appearance at Artists Repertory Theatre, where Artistic Director Dámaso Rodriguez opted for a beloved ghost story in lieu of a beloved holiday classic: Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit.
Depending on whom you ask, Blithe Spirit is either a lighthearted comedy or a great argument for divorce. It's the story of an insufferable aspiring novelist, Charles (Michael Mendelson), who trifles with a medium's supernatural powers and ends up haunted by the angry ghosts of his first and second wives: youthful, scheming Elvira (Sara Hennessy, channeling Zelda Fitzgerald) and buttoned-up, practical Ruth (Jill Van Velzer). (I already hate that dichotomy, how about you?) The medium in question is Madame Arcati (Vana O'Brien), who appears to be a fraud, until she isn't. And Blithe Spirit's onstage aristocrats could not exist without their household help, here in the form of Edith the eternally flustered maid, played by Val Landrum.
Nods to the virgin/whore dichotomy aside, Blithe Spirit has some fun moments, and Artists Rep's production is well appointed, with a beautifully crafted domestic interior for a set, and some tricky (but thoroughly convincing) lighting and sound effects throughout—the closest thing to Industrial Light & Magic you're likely to see in a theater. Nancy Hills' period costumes are also very visually pleasing—I spent most of the play coveting Ruth's occasionally menswear-inspired, always architectural clothing. The actors, too, pull off Coward's quick-witted dialogue, almost comically clipped accents ("veddy artsy-crafty" is used as an insult at one point), and repressed emotional states. Hennessy and Van Velzer, in particular, do a lot with a little, turning roles that could easily devolve into stereotypes (the shrewish older wife; the younger, ditzier one) into characters you actively want to root for.
But here's the rub: Blithe Spirit was first produced in 1941—and it shows. There are things about it that haven't aged particularly well. For one, it's hard to feel much sympathy for rich people who spend all their time writing hacky novels and relaxing in jodhpurs, elegant though those jodhpurs may be. And much of the humor in Coward's script relies on that eternally cheap theatrical shot—jokes at the expense of the not super-rich. In this case, Edith the maid's clumsiness and lack of decorum serve as one of Blithe Spirit's running gags; the play's one real surprise is based on the audience not realizing that she's smarter than she looks.
Dealing with the class structure in a period play like Blithe Spirit is tricky territory, and while none of the play's characters are particularly empathetic—Coward wanted them cold—I can't imagine a contemporary play doing the same thing and being well received. (And that thing about pushing aside Blithe Spirit's virgin/whore subtext? Yeah, I can't actually do that.)
Blithe Spirit's often positioned as a comedic romp, but there's something rotten at the heart of Coward's play. That was how he intended it—he wanted it to be heartless, for none of his characters to be sympathetic, in part because a comedy about ghosts had so much potential to be seen as perverse in WWII-era England. And yet, counterintuitive as it may seem, Artists Rep's production is at its best when it flies in the face of Coward's original intention. Going slightly irreverent for the holiday theater season was absolutely the right impulse. I'm glad Artists Rep did it, and it'd be great to see more theaters follow suit. Next time, though, I hope the reverence for the source material gets jettisoned, too.