Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Blithe Spirit at Olympia Little Theatre

Meghan Goodman, Roddy Matthew Lee, Sophie Parody

Roddy Matthew Lee, Lark Church, Meghan Goodman
I have to say this is going to be a difficult review to write. I guess I might as well plunge right in and start by saying I did not enjoy this play. The play is Blithe Spirit at Olympia Little Theatre, written by Noel Coward. The OLT performance is directed by Kendra Malm. I know it has been popular since its premiere in London’s West End early in 1941, and I know that Coward was a much-respected playwright, so I’m thinking that maybe I should have enjoyed it more than I did.
The fault seems to be Coward’s script more than with Malm and company’s production, although I saw some minor problems opening night.
I reviewed this show when it played Tacoma Little Theatre six years ago, and I searched my blog for that review — hoping, perhaps, that the earlier review would give me some clue as to why I could not get into this one; not that I like comparing different theater’s takes on the same play, somehow that does not seem fair (even though I’m not sure why). That was a convoluted sentence, but I’m leaving it as is.
I gave the TLT show a rather kind but not enthusiastic review. Could it be that I was being more kind than honest? Of course the actors and director were different, but in both productions they were/are mostly experienced and good at what they do. The difference in a proscenium stage and a thrust stage with seating on three sides can be significant, but this OLT set by Matthew Moeller is excellent — quite beautiful, in fact — and Malm’s blocking provides comfortable movement and viewing throughout, so the stage layout shouldn’t make a difference. Also of note are the outstanding period costumes by Diana Purvine.
One big difference, and I wouldn’t have known this if I had not re-read my earlier review, is that director Steve Tarry cut 35 minutes from the TLT version, and considering Coward’s dry British humor, that probably resulted in a huge improvement. At OLT the play started at 8 p.m., and we didn’t get out of the theater until 11:15. There were three acts with two ten-minute intermissions. That’s a long time for modern American audiences accustomed to two-act, two-hour plays with more action.
Did I mention the droll humor? There were a lot of laughs, but not of the knee-slapping, tears-down-the-cheek variety.
Novelist and socialite Charles Condomine (Roddy Matthew Lee) has in mind a novel involving the supernatural, so he invites a spiritualist, Madame Arcati (Lark Church) to perform a séance. Charles, of course, doesn’t believe in séances; he’s doing it for research for his book, and just a little bit so he and his wife, Ruth (Meaghan Goodman) can make fun of Madame Arcati behind her back. Also there for the evening are their friends Dr. Bradman (John Pratt) and Mrs. Bradman (Toni Murray), and their maid, Edith (Sarah May).
At one point during the séance the table starts shaking wildly, Madame Arcati passes out, and Charles’s ex-wife, Elvira (Sophie Parody) appears from “the other side.” Elvira, dead now some seven years, has come to stay, and Charles cannot convince her to go back to wherever it is she came from. Nobody else can see or hear her. Ruth refuses to believe she’s there and thinks Charles must have been drunk when he thought he saw her, until Elvira moves a vase, which to Ruth of course appears to have been lifted by an invisible hand.
Up until the séance starts, a too-long buildup to the main action, there is a lot of busy stuff with props. There is way too much pouring of drinks and setting them down and refilling them before they're emptied. It got confusing to me. It seemed that drinks were set down and forgotten and then picked up by the wrong person, and I couldn’t tell if that was intentional and done for comic effect or not, or even if it actually happened. It was more distracting than funny. It did, however, make more sense when Ruth later accused Charles of drinking too much.
I will not divulge what happens after Elvira is summoned by the medium.
The acting throughout is competent but not exciting. The best acting by far is turned in by Goodman and Church. Goodman is enjoyably expressive as the skeptical, sometimes haughty and often angry wife. Church plays the broadest comedic parts with great style. I loved the way she faints. Parody is suitably ghostly and nicely portrays biting disdain of her ex-husband’s current wife. Plus she moves nicely, and again ghostly, while dancing to a recording of the popular song “Always.”
I did not enjoy Lee’s portrayal of Charles. I thought his range of expression was lacking, and I thought both Pratt and Murray were able but not compelling in the almost throwaway parts of the Bradman’s. The maid, Edith, is also a throwaway part. May does as good a job as possible in a part that gives her little to work with.
There were some bothersome glitches opening night that were as unintentionally funny as any of the punchlines, most noticeably when some special effects happened before they were supposed to. It also bothered me that someone put on a recording of “That Old Black Magic” by Louis Prima and Keely Smith which I think was not recorded until after the play was set. I researched this and found that it was recorded in the same year the play premiered. (The time period is listed as the 1940s, so it may be possible that the Condomines had that record in their collection, but it’s highly unlikely.) Yes, I know I’m being picky.
WHEN: 7:55 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 1:55 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 28
WHERE: Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave., NE, Olympia
TICKETS: $10-$14 ($2 student discount), available at Yenney Music Company on Harrison Avenue (360-943-7500) or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/profile/23136 INFORMATION: 360-786-9484, http://olympialittletheater.org/

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