Tuesday, January 25, 2011

neptune's blithe spirit a hauntingly funny portrayal of midlife marriage

neptune theatre is starting off the new year on the right foot with noel coward's blithe spirit. my review for halifax magazine is below. 

It’s January, and that means that Neptune Theatre is concerned about the state of your marriage. For the three years I’ve been reviewing plays there, the first show of the New Year has taken a whimsical look at the struggles of middle matrimony. In 2009, a couple lost their hats in the stock market and proceeded to lose all of their clothes in an effort to turn home-made porn into house payments in Skin Flick. Last year, a dull couple had a dirty weekend in a hotel to try and save their faltering relationship in Dirty Laundry.

This year, artistic director George Pothitos reaches back to 1940s England and Nöel Coward’s clever Blithe Spirit. Charles Condomine (Ivan Sherry) is a middle-aged novelist whose next book is to feature a medium. As a bit of cheeky research, he invites the locally renowned spiritualist Madame Arcati (Margot Dionne) to his home to conduct a séance. He gathers his second wife Ruth (Martha Irving) and a couple of friends and dims the lights.

Mayhem ensures, followed by the unwanted apparition of his seven-year-dead first wife, Elvira (Marla McLean). Unhappy with the ethereal life, Elvira lustfully leaps back into the land of the living and proceeds to shake the Condomines’ domestic contentment. Suddenly Charles finds his middle-aged second wife paling in comparison to the spectral charms of his first love, despite the fact that he can no longer know her bodily, as she doesn’t have a body. She does have a mind and she uses it to unravel George’s. She spirits him away to see movies, to tour the countryside, to remember the good old days of their marriage of five years—their days of “careless rapture.”

Ruth first thinks George is drunk, then insane, before Elvira proves herself to Ruth. The two wives square off in a battle for the home and heart of George Condomine, pitting Elvira’s limerent seductions against Ruth’s comfortable companionship.

Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in one week during the London Blitz and the play’s playful approach to death must have brought relief to those living in that daily terror. Today, the plot device works well to let us explore the strains of an aging marriage, the temptations and perils of an affair and the ghosts of paramours past that haunt all relationships.

McLean is magnetic as Elvira, anachronistically channeling Marylyn Monroe, and it’s easy to see how she won George. Ruth battles as best she can against her unseen rival, much in the way you would if your partner was cheating on you with an unknown lover. You can see how George found in Ruth a friend for life. 
George himself is at times charming, at times obnoxious, and you can see how his women love and loath him.

Blithe Spirit is a more mature work than Neptune’s two previous romantic comedies and the difficult issues that arise in its marriages are not easily solved. The characters are well portrayed as three-dimensional people and you’ll find yourself rooting for different ones as the play progresses.

The end is a little clumsy–the opening night audience twice summoned a rousing ovation, only to be interrupted by more action before the play finally stopped–but that can be forgiven. Blithe Spirit is a charming, intelligent examination of love and marriage.

Blithe Spirit is at Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall until Feb. 13.
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