Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Blithe Spirit, Great Lakes Theater

(Shanara Gabrielle as Elvira)

This delightful bit of British fluff, penned by Noel Coward, requires a light touch and spot-on timing to keep the laughter bubbling for more than 2½ hours.

But this wan production Blithe Spirit at Great lakes Theatre generates more faint smiles than laugh-out-loud moments. With a couple notable exceptions, the actors and director Charles Fee seem more intent on nailing a precise Coward-ian cadence to the speech than in developing real characters we can relate to and laugh with.

The plot is, of course, a sure-fire winner, which is why this play is done so often. The shallow and narcissistic novelist Charles is married to the tightly wired Ruth, after he first wife Elvira passed away seven years earlier. And now, Charles wants to learn more about the occult for his new tome, and he invites a medium, Madame Arcati, to hold a séance at his house.

Unfortunately for Charles, Elvira winds up being summoned from the depths and starts occupying space in the drawing room where only Charles can see and hear her. Of course, Elvira has skullduggery in mind and, in order to fetch her beloved Charles to the other side, she sabotages his car. But someone else drives the car, and hilarity ensues.

Or so it should be. God knows, a couple of the actors do what they can to enliven the proceedings. As Madame Arcati, Laurie Birmingham fashions a proud and enthusiastic eccentric, thoroughly delighted at her ability to conjure ghosts and bristling when anyone challenges her talents.

And Shanara Gabrielle has some fluid, sensuous fun with Elvira, tweaking Charles unmercifully and showing that the afterlife might be a fairly good place to be. As long as one doesn’t sit around the house all day.

As for Charles, the one character who is almost always on stage, Eric Damon Smith doesn’t build a character the audience can enjoy. Instead of finding the humor in Charles’ persona, Smith opts for playing his role line by line, smiling and grimacing when appropriate but without any depth, and often rattling his lines with machine-gun rapidity but little character-driven sense.

Smith’s weak performance digs a hole large enough for Maggie Kettering, who plays his wife Ruth, to fall into. While establishing Ruth’s stern and snappish attitude, Kettering also feels more like an amalgam of ticks and mannerisms rather than a living, breathing person.

In the running (pun intended) gag that is the role of maid Edith, who dashes full tilt everywhere she goes, Jodi Dominick and director Fee push the sight gags until they moan for mercy.  And somehow, Dominck’s deadpan expressions don’t register as funny, just slightly tragic.

Instead of a light and airy confection, this Blithe Spirit feels more like a leaden fruitcake, filled with bits of sweetness that have gone chewy and stale.

Blithe Spirit
Through March 10 produced by Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000

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