Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” Brilliantly Updated as “iBlithe” at Toronto’s Red Sandcastle Theatre

“Blithe Spirit”, written by English playwright+actor,Noel Coward over a week during the summer of ’41,is a witty,dry as a martini, comedy set in an upper class English drawing room.I was fortunate to attend its opening night at the Red Sandcastle Theatre in Toronto.This play is a “must see” during its limited one week run at the Red Sandcastle.It is wonderfully performed by a very talented group of actors.

What surprised me about the play that I saw, was this particular version resonated on so many different levels.

Here is a quick thumbnail sketch of the play.

A noted English novelist, Charles, ( David Hubard) currently married to his second wife, Ruth (Maria Syrgiannis) decides for the purpose of researching his next book about a homicidal psychic, to invite to his posh English home- a psychic, Madame Arcati, ( Margaret Lamarre) to perform a séance.

In the course of the séance, the ghost of Charles’s former wife, Elvira ( Rosemary Doyle) appears, but is only visible to Charles and can only be heard by Charles. The normally conservative and uptight Charles is both exasperated by the ghostly appearance of his former sexy first wife, and then intrigued and weirdly stimulated by this sensuous apparition . Elvira has apparently come back from the beyond, because she misses him.

For brief period of time, Charles becomes “an astral bigamist”. Cue the hilarity and some weirdness as well.

The very prim and proper Ruth, who cannot see or hear Elvira, thinks Charles has gone raving mad. She also takes great offence to the harsh language Charles hurls at Elvira, as Ruth assumes she is the object of Charles’ exasperation.

But Elvira, though drop dead gorgeous ( literally and figuratively) is not the benign, sexy, earthy/ethereal presence that she initially portrays herself. She has come back from the other side, with vengeance and malice in her non-existent heart.

Events take a comically/ugly turn, and Madame Arcadi, is called upon once again by Charles to make all things right.
Or at least minimize the damage.

The genius of Coward in “Blithe Spirit” and in the more updated “iBlithe” version, is that some of his cynical ideas of life, love, sex, passion and relationships, have a universal quality. Hence Coward’s basic themes are very adaptable and reflective of the times in which this play is performed.

Whether it is 1941 or 2016. London, England or Toronto, Ontario. To Coward; love, sex and even marriage are transitory, untrustworthy and fleeting. Jealousy knows no temporal bounds. Fidelity- an illusion and delusion.

Rosemary Doyle, the writer, who adapted and updated this version to the Red Sandcastle stage, clearly dug deep into the essence of Noel Coward and captured his ideas.

In the 40s, when this play was first performed, Edith, the maid, was used to expose the inflexible class divide in England. But from the perspective of 2016, this “Upstairs/Downstairs-Downton Abbey” theme has been done to death ( so to speak) and unduly dates this excellent play.

I like the way Doyle removed the character of Edith, the maid and replaced her with Edith, the dog. Which surprisingly works even better in “iBlyth”. And clearly makes more sense, as the story unfolds.

In doing so, Doyle effectively refocused the play back to the odd and compelling three way relationship between Charles and his two wives.

As to Rosemary Doyle, as Elvira. She is simply “Mahvellous Dahling”. Doyle’s Elvira is no flighty, ethereal presence. Doyle as a blonde Elvira, plays her brilliantly as a coquettish, sexy, earthy, ribald seductress.

Elvira has come back from the dead to playfully seduce her former husband Charles and remind him of the great sex they once experienced.

Elvira materializes in the drawing room. Only visible to Charles. She is dressed in a very tight light grey skirt. With a terrific rack that leaves lots to the imagination. In her high heels and darkly painted toenails, Elvira lounges on the couch or on a nearby piano. She is constantly crossing and uncrossing her long supple limbs. Running her fingers up and down her bare legs. Or jumping on Charles’ lap and caressing him, outrageously.

To this reviewer, Doyle’s Elvira is part playful Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot” and part sensuous Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie the cat, in the film version of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, desperately trying to seduce her aloof husband Paul Newman and rekindle their passion.

David Hubard as Charles is also well cast. Typically, the role of Charles is played by a tall, handsome, slim, sophisticated and superficial bon vivant . A contemporary of his wife, Elvira.

In a more contemporary spin, Hubard’s Charles, is clearly 10-15 years Elvira’s senior. He is balding, shorter, stouter, more conservative and apparently very wealthy. Implying that Elvira’s motives for marrying Charles were more monetary than amorous.

Because of the stark difference is temperament, Elvira and Charles’s exchanges are sharper and funnier. Hubard is at his best, trying to fend off the sexual advances of Elvira, and failing miserably in the process.

Maria Syrgiannis is also excellent as the second wife, Ruth. This is probably the most difficult role in the play. Ruth as the second wife, is supposed to be the anti-Elvira. She is smart, solid, independent, tough and apparently self-confident. Her relationship with Charles is more sensible, than passionate. As Ruth observes, “Not the wildest stretch of imagination could describe it as the first fine careless rapture.” Ruth knows that the first Elvira was a gorgeous, sexy creature. And initially she feels no jealousy, until Elvira comes on the scene and disrupts her seemingly solid relationship with Charles.

Clearly, Maria’s Ruth is no shrinking violet. She is attractive and strong in her own right. She verbally jousts with Charles, mano a mano and she astutely sees through Elvira’s true motives for returning from the beyond.

I also liked the veteran thespian, Margaret Lamarre, playing the pivotal role as Madame Arcati, the psychic. Her psychic powers drive the story. And her single-minded professionalism as a psychic and her physical comedy, as she goes in and out of trances, is a marked contrast to the witty and superficial banter of the other actors.

In sum, this is a terrific ensemble performance by a very talented group of actors of a classic comedy, that has been successfully updated for a contemporary audience. Check out the Bradmans, now a gay couple in this version. Victor Bradman (Robert Keller), hysterically taking selfies on his iPhone and his partner, Dr. Bradman (Adrian Proszowski) also rock.

I strongly urge you to catch this show at the Red Sandcastle Theater, located at 922 Queen Street East, in Leslieville, Toronto. Remaining performances are all at 8pm are on March 27, 30, 31, and April 1 and 2. Call for reservations at 416-845-9411. For $20 a ticket, this is the best deal in town and a great night at the theatre.

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