The medium is the message in the Guthrie Theater’s amusing “Blithe Spirit,” which showcases a boldly original performance by Sally Wingert as a seance leader.
Madame Arcati is typically depicted as a scattered, flighty dimwit who dabbles in spirituality. None of those words apply to Wingert’s Arcati, who is lascivious, irritable, vigorous (she seems to have studied with Martha Graham’s dance troupe) and, regardless of her skills as a medium, very serious about the occult. You could almost say she has a lust for it, in fact, and the interpretation of Arcati as a sexual person brings unexpected and delightful shades of meaning to Noël Coward’s 1941 play, which was written to divert audiences from cataclysmic world events, and functions the same way 76 years later.
Beyond the laughs that Wingert gets every time she opens her mouth or adjusts her elaborate headpiece, the exciting thing about her performance is that it reminds us that many classic plays are puzzles that can be put together in many different ways.
This year, the Guthrie ripped apart Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman’s 1927 warhorse comedy “The Royal Family,” and didn’t quite succeed in reassembling it. It felt like the missing element was love for the play itself, but that love is on display in abundance in the David Ivers-directed “Blithe Spirit,” which honors Coward’s timeless text and amplifies on it.
Framed in a gorgeous false proscenium, with a show curtain always at the ready to close (it never does), this “Blithe Spirit” begins with a knowing wink at the audience, an acknowledgment that Coward’s brittle, never-at-a-loss-for-a-quip characters never existed anywhere in anything like real life, but isn’t it fun to have them back on stage?
The fun is everywhere in this production, from a showstopping kimono designed for Madame Arcati by costumer Meg Neville, to the way Heidi Armbruster’s hands shake with unconcealed rage as she reads a newspaper, to the tiny, hilarious detail of a married couple’s routine in which he wordlessly passes her every olive from every dry martini he drinks.
Armbruster plays Ruth, the second wife of English novelist Charles Condomine (Quinn Mattfeld). Theirs is an uneasy union, which becomes clear when Arcati’s seance summons Charles’ first wife, Elvira, who would like to bust up the second marriage or bring Charles back to enjoy the next world with her. (As Elvira, Elia Monte-Brown is made up and costumed in black-and-white, so she’s like a flashback in a movie, but her performance is also a tad colorless.)
One sign that Ruth and Charles are not destined for connubial bliss? The actors perform in completely different styles. Armbruster, who delivers virtually all of her lines straight to the audience rather than to the other characters, has fun nodding to the arch theatricality of period-appropriate grand ladies of the theatah such as Tallulah Bankhead and Norma Shearer. Mattfeld’s style is more modern, ironic and intimate. As a man torn between two bad marriages, he nails Charles’ withering sarcasm but gets his biggest laughs from harried looks that almost seem to be inviting the audience to help him figure out his next bad move.
Meanwhile, Coward’s every move is spot-on. There’s a reason “Blithe Spirit” has endured: It’s an almost perfect comedy. Without an ounce of fat on it, “Blithe Spirit” has the confidence to have one character say, at the top of the play, “I have a feeling this evening is going to be awful,” and why not? It knows for sure that she is dead wrong.