English humor is like English food. It is bland, but in its natural environment it is wholly appropriate, and even enjoyable.
The problem with English food is when people try to make it more exciting. Cayenne pepper with plain old meat and potatoes makes an incongruent dish. The very blandness that made it enjoyable has been discarded, leaving, well, bad food. The PSU production of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” suffers from this same incongruency.
English wit is difficult for Americans to grasp. It has a genteelness that is downright delicate compared to our bulldozing sarcasm. It takes a masterful American director to convey this wit to an American audience.
Knowing he is not this kind of director, William Tate didn’t bother to try. He offers a sexed-up Americanized version of this play. But our strong American spice does not appropriately garnish the bland English script.
While not one of Coward’s best plays, the story is still original and fun. Charles Condomine invites over a mystic to hold a s�ance, and his first wife is accidentally summoned. No one else can see or hear her, and Charles’ second wife gets into a territorial war with the ghost she cannot sense over her husband’s affection.
The dry wit in this play is marvelous, but only when the dryness is recognized as an effective taste, and not ignored. Many times during the opening scenes I found myself realizing that what was just said was supposed to be a joke, and could even be funny. But the actors did not give these subtleties to us as humor, either because they were unable to convey them, or unable to recognize them.
All that we did get was the obvious and the overdone. The physical acting was awful-but this is nothing new at PSU. With only one 100-level movement class, it is practically a given that most of the students will not know how to use their bodies onstage.
Edith, the maid, was a running gag by her very appearance. She had two speeds: super-fast and studied slowness. Corinna Van Liew managed to convey this joke to us, but was unable to play with the joke, announcing the production’s complete disregard for subtlety.
This was seen most readily with Madame Arcati, played by Clara Liis-Hillier. She was the eccentric character; and you could tell by her costume. Liis-Hillier dismissed an opportunity to explore genuine oddity in this prospective lunatic, and went for all-out excess instead. How very American.
Volume and size were her main tools to show this character was different from normal women in 1940s England. Those tools work as a basic starting point, but the quirks that make a big character an individual were denied to us.
Overkill was a flaw of the ghost, Elvira, as well. Instead of letting her innuendoes remain subtle, she descended into crotch-grabbing and overt sexual positions unlikely in any English noblewoman and conflicting with the script itself. Instead of an intriguing, otherworldly seductress, Jayne Stevens’ Elvira was an American soul trapped in an English ghost.
What really killed this show was the directing flaws that I would not have expected a student to make, much less a tenured professor. When Madame Arcati came over for tea in the middle of the play, she had no place to put her teacup. So, she placed it on the floor, in the midst of a house (and set) with furniture everywhere.
Teacups do not go on the floor in English households. An end table, the obvious solution, would have precluded the need to watch what happens to the teacup for the next two scenes.
At the very least, it could have gone on the upstage side of the chair. Instead, it took position front and center, almost daring the audience to pay attention to it.
There were enough nitpicky flaws of this caliber in the play that I must wonder: does Tate not know, or not care? Either bodes poorly for the department, which wraps up its main stage season with its third strike of the year.