It’s the words that are scary in Brass Tack’s "Blithe Spirit"
Ghouls, goblins, zombies, and ghosts.
Well, not all ghosts are scary.
Take Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. The ghost is mischievous but also charming. What is scary is the sarcasm that the characters hurl back and forth at each other.
Brass Tacks Ensemble will present Coward’s humorous take on all things ghostly Nov. 2-4 and 9-11 under the direction of Aaron C. Wade.
“It’s a haunted tale with a little bit of comedy and it’s that time of the season for a ghost story,” said Wade. “It a fun challenge to do this sort of theater.”
Coward’s play is set in the upper-class sitting room of Charles and Ruth Condomine. Charles is a successful novelist. He is doing research for a mystery novel about a murderous medium and invites a local medium to hold a séance. The medium conjures up the ghost of Charles’ late wife, Elvira, and a battle of words is on. Only Charles (and the audience) can see and hear Elvira, much to Ruth’s skepticism and later frustration.
Words and wit are what set Coward’s work apart.
“It’s very rapid fire, witty dialogue that creates a mood and sentiment,” said Wade.
Brass Tacks is known for its stripped-down approach to production. Where the Blithe Spirit set is usually an elaborate country house setting with a garden to the side, Wade is taking a different approach.
“We’re doing minor modifications to it. So what we’re doing is what I call a book version of a play and we let the background come from the imagination of the audience, to focus on the performances of the actors,” Wade said. “There’s a lot of emphasis on the interactions of the cast and the performance of their lines.”
Wade said the play has an “excessive amount of dialogue for the actors to process.”
Chloe Grisa, who plays Ruth Condomine, said that the amount of dialogue is a challenge.
“This is the most dialogue I’ve had in any show I’ve done and I’ve done a lot of shows,” she said. “But, also, it’s the way the characters are speaking since it’s set in 1940s England upper class. Because it’s proper, it’s different from how we speak in 2018 America.”
Most of the cast will be speaking in a British accent, with the exception of Lori O’Dell who will play Madame Arcati with an Eastern European accent. But the cast is up for the challenge.
“My cast is a mixture of veterans and newcomers,” Wade said. “We have actors from musical theater to Shakespeare and it’s a talented, nice mix.”
The play has its spooky moments, but the emphasis in on that rapid fire and finely honed language that made the play a big hit when it opened in London’s West End in 1941, just as the war was ramping up. The play set a record for performances in its four-year run, a respite for the war-weary London residents. The play also had a long run on Broadway later in the decade and was made into a movie starring Rex Harrison in 1945.
The characters have sharp tongues.
“I think that all of the characters are extremely selfish and finding the ways in which they are selfish is part of the fun of the play,” said Russ Schwartz, who plays Charles.
He said Charles is “very spoiled” and carries things to extremes.
“They are all kind of looking for their turn to find an advantage.”
Charles and Ruth seem to have a happy if snippy marriage, but it is put to the test when Elvira arrives and can only be heard and seen by Charles.
“Some of the fun moments are when Ruth doesn’t notice and Charles is having two different conversations, one with Ruth and one with Elvira,” Schwartz said. “And sometimes it just lines up so well I feel like Chloe and Emily kind of set themselves up and I am the fulcrum point to find their edge.”
For Grisa those scenes are fun but also a challenge.
“It’s definitely different from roles I’ve been doing because in other roles I’ve been in I can see everybody, but I would definitely say it’s been a challenge to pretend to can’t see her even though I can,” Grisa said. “But I also have to see her react to what she’s doing. It’s definitely hard, but it’s a fun game.”
Grisa said Ruth is an insecure woman who wants things to go a certain way and when they don’t, “it’s a big inconvenience.”
Grisa does double duty as an actress and also makeup and hairdresser. She’s responsible for giving Elvira, played by Emily Sparrow-Watts, her ethereal, ghostly pallor.
The most flamboyant character is Madame Arcati, played by Lori O’Dell.
“Madame Arcati is a psychic medium and because the play was written in 1941, she represents a lot of stereotypes,” O’Dell said. “She’s rather ditzy.”
O’Dell said they she will play her as a well-traveled foreigner.
“She’s very, very professional, but has this charismatic quality about her and her thoughts can turn on a dime,” O’Dell said. “She loves when things are going her way and when they’re not you’re in trouble.”
O’Dell, who played Elvira in another production of the play, said Madame Arcati’s main feature is her physicality. But the play always comes back to words.
“The writing is so wonderful. Noel Coward has given each character a rhythm and certain words and phrases repeat, so, for instance, I’ll have a line in act two that is almost the same as a line in act three. The same is true of Neil Simon, they write with a rhythm and if you can get into the rhythm then it flows a lot more easily.”
The play ends with Charles making a dramatic exit. Schwartz said the closing monologue gave him several options for how to play it.
“In one way it is ultra villainous and you can imagine Alan Rickman striding out,” he said. “What I really like about it is that whatever Charles has been holding back for the whole play, he gets it all put out there at the end, the things you always to say at the end of an argument but never do because when you did that would be the end. It’s like a villain monologue because it’s all these visceral things that Charles says.”
It’s all about those scary words.
Also in the cast are Eric Bloch as Dr. Bradman, Dorianne Jentzen as Mrs. Bradman and Maegan Murphy as Edith, the Condomine’s maid.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
Brass Tack Ensemble’s "Blithe Spirit" will be presented at the Children’s Creative Center, 1600 Pauline Blvd., Ann Arbor. The shows are at 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, Nov. 2-3 and 9-10, and at 2 pm on Sundays Nov. 4 and 9. For tickets, visit btensemble.org or call 734-926-5376.