Blithe Spirit (Review)

Annie Fitzpatrick's loony psychic tops off a summer treat at Cincy Shakespeare

Critic's Pick

For several summers, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has offered shows of witty, classical fluff when most companies are on a seasonal break. This month Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit is filling the bill nicely.

Six CSC’s veteran performers are featured in the comedic ghost story, with the addition of Annie Fitzpatrick, a local professional who most often appears at Ensemble Theatre. She provides a great dollop of loony frosting on a very tasty summer dessert.

Charles Condomine (Jeremy Dubin) is urbane and flippant, rather like Coward himself. He’s a successful novelist seeking some research about psychics for his next work, so he and his pragmatic, class-conscious wife Ruth (Corinne Mohlenhoff) invite another couple for the evening. The Bradmans (Matthew Lewis Johnson, Hayley Clark) are a skeptical, dour physician and his chatty wife. Their special guest is the loopy Madame Arcati (Fitzpatrick).

Things don’t go as planned, however, when the evening’s séance inadvertently materializes Condomine’s first wife Elvira (Kelly Mengelkoch), dead for seven years. Cranking up the hilarity is a quirky maid, Edith (Sara Clark).

The show, first produced in London in 1941 (it ran for nearly 2,000 performances), is an amusing situation comedy. Condomine is a feckless snob, well-meaning but narrow, who has let his life be run by his polar-opposite wives. Elvira seems to have genuinely cared for him, but the “morally untidy” woman died unexpectedly, and Charles married Ruth two years later. She is a woman all about tidiness and not much more.

When Elvira shows up — visible only to Charles — a lot of confusion and comedy ensues. By the end of the third act, matters get more complicated (with a few unexpected twists and turns) and then sort of resolved.

Fitzpatrick turns in Blithe Spirit’s most entertaining performance as the dotty medium. She has excelled with rational characters for ETC over the years (earning numerous Cincinnati Entertainment Award nominations, including one for last season’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone), so it’s great fun to watch her cut loose in this wildly comic role.

Madame Arcati is this play’s most memorable role, and Fitzpatrick milks it for all it’s worth. She stalks around the Condomines’ living room (a cozy set with bookcases, doilies and fresh-cut flowers designed and lit by Heather Mork), sniffing for ectoplasm and assuming odd physical stances intended to connect her with the nether world. Madame Arcati is as absorbed with her own supernatural performance as she is in actually raising a spirit or two, and Fitzpatrick captures her oddball essence delightfully, although she's younger than actresses who typically play the role, such as Angela Lansbury, who earned a 2009 Tony Award in a recent Broadway revival of the play.

Annie Fitzpatrick is utterly entertaining in Blithe Spirit. [Photos by Rich Sofranko]

But Blithe Spirit is not merely a showcase for Fitzpatrick. Mengelkoch makes Elvira a coy manipulator. Mohlenhoff contains her naturally charming stage presence to play Ruth with a stern, unamused simmer. As the show’s “blithe spirit,” Mengelkoch wears pale makeup and a white satin gown to represent her otherworldly link, while Mohlenhoff is dressed in sturdy, muted tones that emphasize her anchoring in the here and now. (Heidi Jo Schiemer’s costumes nicely set the show in its 1940s period.)

Dubin is excellent as the bemused, self-centered Condomine, loath to hurt the feelings of the “poor Elivra” and buffaloed by Ruth’s no-nonsense demeanor. It’s also great fun to watch Sara Clark make the most of the small role of Edith, a hyperactive maid ordered to slow down to a more orderly pace. Johnson and Hayley Clark play one-note characters, but do so with perfect pitch: His Dr. Bradman is irritated with Madame Arcati’s nonsense, and her nattering Violet is captivated by the thrill of the exotic proceedings.

Brian Phillips has stylishly directed Blithe Spirit. Its three acts (three hours with two brief intermissions) move quickly, and the cast’s comic energy has a momentum that carries you “blithely” from scene to scene.

BLITHE SPIRIT, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Aug. 8. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.