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Headline: Blithe Spirit: A response to war — with laughter and no more black curtains
The war rages.
The year is 1941 and Germany occupies most of Europe, invades Russia and continually bombs England in what’s known as “The Blitz.” More than one million London homes are destroyed or damaged, and more than 40,000 civilians are killed.
As the Nazis ravage the country, Noel Coward sits down and writes the play “Blithe Spirit” in just five days. It is his way to respond to the devastating impacts of World War II — he wants his British audience to have an escapist comedy, but when it hits the stage some critics say it pokes fun at death at the height of the war. Despite the small outcry, the play goes on to set box-office records.
Island Stage Left is now bringing “Blithe Spirits” to San Juan, Nov. 3 - Dec. 4, with the same intent — to lighten the mood.
“It’s a classic, it transcends time periods because it’s so funny,” Director Helen Machin-Smith said. “I thought the audience would like it because people are feeling depressed.”
She cites the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how it affects the American people. Although bombs are not dropped on American soil, Machin-Smith says people are feeling the pinch of the poor economic climate.
“The economy is in the toilet,” said Daniel Mayes, who plays Charles Condomine, the lead role. “And it is lighter than our last play ‘A Winter’s Tale.’ We are due for a comedy.”
The play is set in an upperclass English home during the 1930s, prior to the outbreak of World War II. Charles, a novelist, invites Madame Arcati, an eccentric medium, to his house to conduct a seance, hoping to gather material for his next book. This scheme backfires when he is haunted by the ghost of his annoying and temperamental first wife, Elvira, who disrupts Charles’ marriage to his second wife, Ruth, who cannot see or hear the ghost.
To show the Condomines’ lavish lifestyle, Island Stage Left has created an elaborate set with costumes made from scratch and three walls, a fireplace and french doors.
“We’ve done lots of shows with black curtains and had people use their imaginations,” Machin-Smith said. “But this is not one of those sets.”
The cast says the script is also a piece of art. The play requires proper British accents and speed — like all comedies, the timing is everything.
Mayes recently watched a performance of “Blithe Spirit” on Youtube and was horrified to see how the play can drag, if the actors don’t keep the words flowing.
For the weeks leading up to the performance, the all-island cast will rehearse the speedy dialogue and accents in Island Stage Left’s Rehearsal Barn, what Mayes calls the “meat locker” — it’s so cold the actors have been showing up in their winter coats.
The barn is even chillier when you have to wear lingerie, but Krista Strutz, who plays leading lady, Elvira, says that the skimpy outfit gets her into character much better than wearing a parka, even if she can see her breath.
As for the accents, the cast is lucky to have Machin-Smith, who as a native of England is an expert.
“I’ve been in a lot of English plays, and I’ve been married to Helen for over 30 years so I’ve listened to the accent a lot,” Mayes said. “I’m blessed with a good ear for accents. It is kind of like music in the way, you have to listen and mimic.”
For Machin-Smith, directing “Blithe Spirit” brings her full circle. In 1982 she performed as Edith the maid with just 30 minutes notice — she had played the part five years earlier — so she feels a special connection to the play.
While the plot and situations are absurd, the characters have to be real.
Mayes admits it’s not much of a stretch to play his character, who is witty, charming and a little full of himself.
“Everyone has got stuff inside themselves to access and if you are able to get over yourself and access those emotions, you are successful as an actor,” Mayes said. “Of course, I really wanted to play Madame Arcati, but Helen wouldn’t let me.”
“Blithe Spirit” runs Thursdays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m., and Sundays, 4 p.m., at San Juan County Fairgrounds. Admission is free, but donations are accepted. For more info, visit www.islandsstageleft.org.