BWW Review: Elements Theatre Company's BLITHE SPIRIT Is A Visual Feast of Noël Coward's Comedic Core

BWW Review: Elements Theatre Company's BLITHE SPIRIT Is A Visual Feast of Noël Coward's Comedic Core
Stephanie Haig is ethereal as Elvira in Elements Theatre Company's Blithe Spirit. With Phoenix Catlin and Zachary Clark. Photo credit: Hans Olsen

ORLEANS, MA - Noël Coward may have used the sexual innuendo in BLITHE SPIRIT to "tease the middle aged ladies' (as one biographer suggests) or to outright "advocate for the sexual freedom of mid-life men" (as others attest). Elements Theatre Company's BLITHE SPIRIT chooses to dodge all of that. This is a visual feast of a production that updates it female leads to heroines, and strips the piece to its comedic core. It's a thought-provoking interpretation, and this show deserves a longer run than the two weekends it will see.

This SPIRIT is a roomy and vivid affair. Early on, one is struck by the quality and artistic detail of the set and costumes. Each surpasses those of some Broadway shows. No faded upholsteries or somber tones in this living room. And the time spent crafting the perfectly-fitted period outfits is unmistakable. The artistry of the set's painted wallpaper prompted a group of men in an opening-weekend audience to carefully examine the panels at intermission. The garden wall sometimes visible through the curtained patio doors is meticulous. Elements' Elvira haunts in luminous silver instead of the typical gray. And Ruth Condomine's breakfast outfit the morning after the séance is a show stopper in its style and sophistication.

The set's décor is smartly updated for an American audience - no loud upholstery or clashing color schemes common with British interiors. Instead, the homage to Coward's culture is via throw pillows, select knick-knacks, and period flower arrangements. The result is tasteful and lends an air of continual discovery to the room, as those props become increasingly prominent throughout the play.

No surprise that the scenic design and set construction teams number 35, with three additional prop masters. A full 19 people tended to costumes and makeup/hair. The smooth scene changes are swift thanks to a seven-person stage crew. Bravo.

Finally, with the garden doors at downstage left and the (unseen) entry foyer at upstage right, director Joanna Weir Ouston makes the most of her freedom to punctuate Coward's dialogue with sweeping movements and broad physical comedy.

BWW Review: Elements Theatre Company's BLITHE SPIRIT Is A Visual Feast of Noël Coward's Comedic Core
Danielle Dwyer delights as Madame Arcati (center) in Elements Theatre Company's Blithe Spirit. With (left to right) Diana Shannon, Zachary Clark, Phoenix Catlin and Brad Lussier. Photo credit: Hans Olsen

All of this scene setting serves the entire cast well, especially Stephanie Haig's mischievous Elvira and Danielle Dwyer's scene-stealing Madame Arcati.

Haig swans through Elvira's scheming-penitent-vindictive arc with aplomb, perfectly costumed in the diaphanous silver peignoir worn at the character's moment of death. When she gently undulates her arms, whether standing or perched on a sofa arm, the effect of Elvira's ghostly floating is complete. Her physical comedy craft shines as she tosses herself enthusiastically around the living room, seemingly manhandled by a newly deceased (though unseen) rival.

Dwyer's Arcati steals the stage whenever she appears, her earnest zeal drawing deep, hearty laughs. At times her co-actors retreat upstage and don't even try to compete. It's a wise choice. Dwyer is also the company's artistic director.

Completing the production's trio of strong women is Phoenix Catlin as Ruth Condomine. Catlin eschews the pinched spouse caricature, instead offering a nuanced Ruth who earns the audience's sustained affection. Even as the plot descends into chaos, Catlin's Ruth refuses to lose her composure (including when the playwright intended it). Catlin also does the heavy lifting of neutering Coward's baser intentions - at one point throwing the blatantly suggestive "milk of human fiddlesticks" line innocently up with a shrug of her shoulders and voice, resting in a fold of the arms instead of a pointed, lower gesture. It's an intriguing choice and plays well in the #timesup era.

Meanwhile, Zachary Clark's Charles Condomine anchors the production. The night's standout performance, he masterfully navigates Charles' corkscrew state of mind - at times bolting from composed to panicked and back again within the same scene. He is the essential straight man and a skilled comedic foil. He must be happily exhausted after each two and a half-hour performance. Thanks in part to his skilled pacing, his audience happily feels the evening flew.

BWW Review: Elements Theatre Company's BLITHE SPIRIT Is A Visual Feast of Noël Coward's Comedic Core
Elements' Elvira is luminous in silver - a welcome departure from the traditional gray for the character. Photo credit: Hans Olsen

Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit. Through July 29th at Elements Theatre Company. Friday through Sunday at 7:30pm. (Saturday, July 28th is sold out.) Tickets at

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From This Author Michele Clarke

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