SHAWANO, Wis. (WFRV) – The entertainment of the Box in the Wood Theatre Guild offering of the famed comedy “Blithe Spirit” starts in the printed program with director’s notes by Mary Madsen.
She spells out a tale of trial – a busted theater furnace in winter – and triumph – the return of the eagles, who had to do some fixing up, too.
Mary Madsen then goes for the world’s record of “Special Thanks,” with three pages and 25 mentions. There’s a 26th, too: “A special thanks to anyone I’ve forgotten to mention.”
She tells of holding auditions in a building at 46 degrees and rehearsing in a donated space in child-care center, sometimes sitting on kiddie chairs when running through lines.
The eagles? The community theater troupe’s home, Mielke Arts Center, is one of the few places anywhere that has an aerie near its front door – up in a tree to the left. After a nest blow-down in a storm, the eagles got theatrical, as in “The show must go on,” and rebuilt.
And, after three months of adventure and misadventure, the humans got their show on.
It’s by Noel Coward, a not-so-cowardly lion of theater in London and on Broadway. “Blithe Spirit” is just one of his hits from back when – 1941 in this case. He even has a Wisconsin connection. Noel Coward was a friend of acting legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The couple’s legacy continues in their home in Wisconsin, Ten Chimneys, where Noel Coward visited them, and on Broadway by way of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where the hit “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” is currently running.
Now, to the play: The style of theater in 1941 was/is of a different pace than today. “Blithe Spirit” takes a bit to set up the intricate premise. Action gets going when one of the indelible characters in theater lore arrives, a cuckoo clairvoyant, to conduct a séance. Box in the Wood Theatre adds to the nuttiness with gimmick casting: Madame Arcati is played by a male with expertise in oddball characters in area productions.
The story has all kinds of twists and turns, and the cast impressively holds to the road in the complexities that include Noel Coward’s upper-crust wordplay.
Michael Brunner is at the fore as main catalyst character Charles Condomine, a writer who has set up the séance to research a book.
The funny thing is, Charles doesn’t believe in séances and such, and Madame Arcati (Brandon Byng) is the real deal and delivers a being from the beyond. Surprise, Charles, it’s your first wife! Only you can see and hear Elvira (Hailey Falish), the blithe spirit. Elvira is not so keen about your new wife, Ruth (Evelyn Smoot), and she’s up to antics.
At a peak of confusion, Charles gets ticked off at things Elvira says and answers in insulting ways that Ruth believes are about her. Charles’s marriage gets messy.
Friends, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Andrew Sturm and Nicki Wood), think Charles is hallucinating.
Oddball maid Edith (Bailey Harkey) adds quaint humor and becomes important as the tale progresses.
The story takes place in England, but the production dispenses with accents to focus on the complexities of free-living Charles and his wives and the spirit-world concoctions of Madame Arcati.
The set has the look of the home of a privileged class of Britons, and costuming has a lot of looks: Charles and Ruth of elegance, Elvira as a spirit in a flowing silken gown along with glitter amid her make-up and much out-of-this-world flash and dash in the outfits of Madame Arcati.
Signs of much work by Mary Madsen and her cast surface when give-and-take among the characters reaches a rhythm in large portions of the performance. The players are into their character’s persona, with Brandon Byng fueling sparks with the playful voicings and flamboyant mannerisms as Madame Arcati.
The backstory of what everybody went through adds an appreciation of what this company accomplished.
Running time: Two hours, 50 minutes
Remaining performances: 7 p.m. May 6-7; and 1 p.m. May 8.
Creative: Playwright – Noel Coward; director – Mary Madsen; assistant director – Cheryl Folkerts; set design and decoration – Cheryl Folkerts; set construction – Alex Konen; sound and lights – Marcus Whitehouse; sound effects – Brandon Byng
Cast (in order of appearance)
Edith, the Condomine’s maid – Bailey Harkey
Ruth Condomine – Evelyn Smoot
Charles Condomine – Michael Brunner
Dr. George Bradman – Andrew Sturm
Mrs. Violet Bradman – Nicki Wood
Madame Arcati – Brandon Byng
Elvira Condomine – Hailey Falish
NEXT: “Legally Blonde” musical, July 14-17, 21-24.
THE VENUE: The Mielke Arts Center was dedicated as the Mielke Theatre on Feb. 9, 1976, in the 24-acre Mielke Park on Airport Road north of Shawano in the Town of Westcott. The park includes a picturesque pond adjacent to the parking lot. The building was renamed in 1994. The Shawano County Arts Council maintains and operates the center. The theater is of the “black box” type – unadorned (cinder block walls, painted black, and cement floor, painted gray) and adaptable to the needs of a specific production. Box in the Wood Theatre Guild productions often shift from position to position in the performance space. For “Blithe Spirit,” the audience faces the south side of the building. A stage is built a foot or so above the main floor. The audience is seated on floor level in front rows, with a set of slight risers to the rear. The performance area is laid out at a near-rectangle. The production booth is up and to the left of the audience. This production is another example of how use of the space is flexible.
THE EAGLES: Right outside the entrance on the east side of the building – and up in a pine tree – is an aerie. Bald eagles keep a nest well-kempt. Sometimes they are at home when playgoers come and go. Not many theaters anyplace have a home of eagles outside their door in plain sight.
THE PEOPLE: The Mielke Family Foundation was established in 1963 by Dr. Edward F. Mielke and his wife, Beulah (Bee), together with sisters Ruth and Sarah Mielke. A native of Shawano, Dr. Mielke practiced medicine in Appleton for 60 years. Ruth Mielke presided over the library at Appleton West High School for 40 years. Sarah Mielke taught advanced mathematics at Shawano High School.