"To the unseen," Charles Condomine raises his dry gin martini to clink glasses with his wife, Ruth.
Charles and Ruth, the lead characters in Noel Coward's comedy Blithe Spirit, are raising their spirits before the town's eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, arrives at their house to raise otherworldly spirits from the grave.
Though the Condomines have arranged the seance in jest, something naturally goes awry. Soon, Charles' deceased first wife, Elvira, appears as an "ectoplasmic manifestation" visible only to him. "I've been married to Ruth for five years and you've been dead for seven," Charles says to Elvira, his voice shaking, while Ruth watches with bewildered concern. "Not dead, Charles," Elvira interrupts. "'Passed over.' It's considered vulgar to say 'dead' where I come from."
Blithe Spirit, the opening production in Idaho Shakespeare Festival's 37th season, is a comedic romp best described as Death Becomes Her with a dash of Oscar Wilde's sass. The characters fire off witty repartee--"Was she more physically attractive than I am?" pries the jealous Ruth. "That was a very tiresome question, dear, and fully deserves the wrong answer," sighs the dapper Charles--and fling multisyllabic insults like "guttersnipe" and "astral bigamist."
ISF's cast brings this rapid-fire dialogue to life with exceptional vigor. Maggie Kettering is captivating as Ruth, who blends the poise of Mad Men's Joan with the nagging, judgmental snarl of Betty. Shanara Gabrielle, in her ISF debut, is bewitching as Elvira, slinking about coquettishly in a clingy silver dress with whitish-blonde curls. And Eric Damon Smith lends Charles a twinkly eyed, mustachioed charm. But the real show-stealer is the sturdy Madame Arcati, played by Laurie Birmingham, who ISF regulars will remember from last season's hilarious turn as Juliet's raunchy Nurse. Clad in Kim Krumm Sorenson's delightfully garish attire--velour jackets, iridescent purple suits, a cylindrical Shriners' hat--Birmingham provides the production with a hearty dose of physical comedy, tumbling over furniture and passing out during her numerous trances.
But even the best production can't make up for the fact that the play's subject matter feels outdated. Written in five feverish days in the midst of the Blitz of 1941, Coward's creation combines many of the era's familiar female stereotypes--the harpy shrew, the conniving bombshell, the bumbling maid with the Cockney accent--to make a grand statement best summed up as: "Women, aren't they exhausting?" And after three hours and two intermissions, that's quite dispiriting.