6/13/2013 - Picture the absolute worst thing that could happen to a remarried widower. In the Majestic Theatre’s next show, Blithe Spirit, it happens.
Blithe Spirit’s story is of a dead wife who haunts her former husband and his second wife. Despite the horrors (the widower is more terrified at his two wives’ being together than the fact that one is a ghost), the cast and show director say it’s quite funny. They credit the play’s writer, Noël Coward, for the humor.
“Noël Coward uses words in a really clever way. Even I was surprised at how modern it sounds,” said Liz Moore, the show’s director. “It’s not like some older shows, which might seem slow or drawn out.”
Blithe Spirit was first seen at the Manchester Opera House in England in June 1941. The play follows a successful novelist named Charles Condomine who’s researching his next book, which will be about a fake medium. He invites over a real psychic to reference, an eccentric character named Madame Arcati. She holds a séance at his house.
To Charles’s horror, Madame Arcati inadvertently manages to summon his first wife, Elvira, who has been dead for seven years. Madame Arcati is unaware that she’s summoned Elvira — only Charles can see her — nor does she know that Elvira’s deepest wish is that Charles will also die and join her in the spirit world. The best way to do that, Elvira decides, is to kill him, and so after Madam Arcati leaves, she inhabits the house with him and his new wife, who now has to share her husband’s attention.
Little goes as planned.
Some of the actors in this show face an interesting challenge, Moore explained in a phone interview. While audience members will be able to see everything that’s going on, ghosts and all, a few of the actors have to pretend they can’t, since initially it’s only Charles who can see his first wife’s spirit.
In rehearsals, Moore would ask actors to step out of certain scenes. You use the room differently when you know someone is there, she explained, and it takes practice to get used to.
“We’d take the dead wife out of the situation and see how actually insane he looks,” Moore said. “You see him doing all kinds of crazy stuff, and this gives her [Rebecca Howland, who plays Ruth] more to work with and act off of.”
Rebecca Howland, who plays Charles’s second wife, Ruth, said acting under this scenario is “definitely interesting.”
“In some places, you have to look through her [actress Anja Ward, who plays Elvira]. It’s really hard not to look at her sometimes, because she does it really well,” Howland said.
This is the first play Howland has taken part in since high school. She’d been working on a number of film projects previously, but she wanted to mix it up.
“With film, you only have to prepare for one or two scenes. Even if the camera is rolling, you can stop and start over again. With a play, you have to know it all and know it well,” Howland said.
Plus, in a play, you’re always on.
“Even if you’re not talking, you have to be reacting,” she said.
Aaron Compagna doesn’t have to worry about pretending not to see actress ghosts. He’s playing Charles, a character he refers to as the “hapless husband,” and he can see everything. For Compagna, the biggest challenge is memorizing the pages and pages of dialogue.
“These characters love to talk,” he said. “They’re high society. Talking is an art for them. They’re in love with the sounds of their own voices and the wit that comes out of their mouths.”
Though Compagna feels sorry for Charles (what guy wouldn’t?), he admits that part of the humor comes from this high society figure so frustrated and out of his league.
“He seems to have gotten by his whole life on charm and wit, but then he gets into a rather amusing situation: the two prominent women in his life are at each other’s throats,” Compagna said. “Nothing he’s learned in his life is even remotely useful in this situation. … He seems like someone who has always tried to keep an air of confidence about him, yet he’s really losing his mind.”
Which, for audiences, is really funny looking at from the outside, even if they don’t care to admit it.
“It’s fun, sophisticated, and you’re laughing at other people’s expenses,” Compagna said. “It would be a night well-spent in a theater.”