PROVO — “I’ll go and see anything so long as it amuses me, or moves me. If it doesn’t do either I want to go home.” —Noel Coward
The above quote could apply to the average audience member in any theatre. Not all drama resounds with importance, nor does it always have to be glib and entertaining. What matters is that it does something. Unfortunately for Coward, his scripts tend to be staged in that middle world of nothingness that leaves audiences bored. Fortunately for Utah Valley, Blithe Spirit at the Covey Center in Provo does not fall into that trap.
I never like delving too much into summaries when I review a play, so I’ll give only the bare bones of the plot. It is essentially a story about recent newlyweds Charles and Ruth, played by Joshua Brown and Alice Johnson, who run into trouble when a seance accidentally brings back the less-than-good-natured ghost of Charles’ ex-wife Elvira, played by Bethany Woodruff. These three central characters where my favorite of the night, which is what I think made the production such a success.
Joshua Brown was excellent playing a Charles that was balanced between being sympathetic and beastly. If he had just been suave and witty the whole time, like so many other actors allow this character to become, then the second half of the play where the audience starts to see Charles’ true colors wouldn’t have seemed to make sense. Brown’s accent was pretty believable as well although it did falter every once in a while when emotions ran high. Alice Johnson’s Ruth was something special to behold as well. This type of a character needs someone with wit and fire in order for much of the banter to not come off as too misogynistic. Alice brought a great amount of spirit to her role, and easily moved from being a devoted newlywed to a a quick witted, no-nonsense equal.
Which brings us to Elvira. This is quite possibly one of the hardest roles to live up to since she is talked about so much before the audience actually sees her and is described as being passionate, earthy, playful, and ethereal. On top of that, she has to be ghostly without any of the added benefit of technical wizardry. That being said, Bethany Woodruff fit the bill perfectly. She wasn’t put in shrouds, and her face wasn’t made pale. To be honest, she didn’t need any of that. Instead she flitted about the stage with such an ease and playfulness that her own energy seemed to lend it’s own ghostly buoyancy.
While these three really made the evening worth it’s salt, there were some parts of the production that I felt could have made the show an absolute success if more thought had been put into them. Lynne Bronson’s portrayal of Madam Aracti is the most pressing example that comes to mind. Madam Arcati is the spirit medium in the show that hosts the seance that starts the whole story off, and I felt that she should have been the most eccentric character of the whole cast. While I could tell Bronson certainly had the ability to be a strong character, I could also certainly tell she needed more time with the script. Almost every line on her part was filled with awkward pauses and fumbling. If it was a character choice, I can understand the direction, but it needs to be stronger because to me as an audience member it came off as an actress trying to remember her lines.
Another problem I had was with the effects of the show. A show with a ghost in it certainly needs some atmosphere to it, and this script is even written with those elements in mind. Eric Samuelsen’s direction of these elements, however, were not quite strong enough to be successful. Possessed tables that move of their own free will and mysterious knocking on walls from the great beyond are certainly challenges in their own right, but I felt like there was not enough thought put into the answers to these challenges. It just felt like there wasn’t time to come up with a solution, so instead what the audience heard was actors banging on the wall from back stage. I do have to say though, that the convention used to put the ghosts on stage for the first time was pretty clever. I wished the rest of the shows effects were as well thought out. It just wasn’t as spooky and atmospheric as it was advertised to be, which I felt was a problem in direction, not in the script itself.
While Blithe Spirit is a really witty piece, and perfect for the Halloween season, I felt like what makes this production shine is the great acting work by the three leads. They all made witty lines seem natural, and I was never jarred by the bold characters they created. So while this play in it’s very nature isn’t particularly moving, it is quite amusing, and this showing in particular in unique enough to add to the list of shows to see this Halloween season.