The Spiritualism craze of the late 19th and early 20th centuries drew a backlash of debunkers. The folks at Scientific American, among others, worked to test and expose the “mediums” who rooked the grieving into believing they could communicate with departed loved ones. But millions became believers to one extent or another, including noted personages like Arthur Conan Doyle and even William Butler Yeats.
The most notable debunker – the Amazing Randi of his age – was Harry Houdini. The famed magician and escape artist’s crusade against the charlatans was especially poignant: he wished so badly that he could communicate with his late mother, to whom he was devoted all his life.
Playwright Sara Fellini mines this rich seam in Ectoplasm, a period comedy-drama now in its world premiere by spit&vigor. The 90-minute one-act centers on a professionally successful medium named Sara Marshall (Jillian Cicalese) – Sara without an “H,” as she insists at too much length – and Ira Orinthall (downtown veteran Adam Belvo), a Houdini-esque magician and debunker. The two face off at a high-toned séance-party attended by a cross-section of late-18th-century society.
An interesting potential conflict arises early on: Sara’s partner Kaye (Caitlin Dullahan-Bates) announces she can no longer in good conscience continue fleecing people out of their money with parlor tricks. Alas, the story doesn’t follow through on this dynamic.
For her part, Sara believes that her trade’s tricks actually work as facilitators of clients’ engagement with real otherworldly phenomena. But is this medium really a conduit to the world beyond? Or is she, as Yeats’ skeptic puts it in The Words Upon the Window-Pane, his play on the same subject, merely “an accomplished actress and scholar”? We learn the answer by the end, via a plot twist concerning an unexpected guest.
Unfortunately the play hasn’t made us care. Most of the characters are little more than labels, here for period authenticity – a louche young butler, a suffragette, and others representing trends of the time.
I’m not sure what the evening’s unsteady hostess is meant to signify – she has enough stage time to seem an important character, but her reason for being here was a mystery to me, other than as a touchpoint of romantic jealousy that arrives out of the blue – another hint of plot that doesn’t pan out. Other characters do little more than stand around in spiffy period costumes (nicely designed by Claire Daly) and fill out the stage in dance sequences that help, but not enough, to build atmosphere.
The one engaging scene is a private session between Sara and Ira. As real conflict develops here, both characters come to life, and the actors show that when given something to work with, they have talent to spare.
But for most of the play, we see a cast going through the motions rather than inhabiting their characters. And with the partial exception of Sara, there’s little to inhabit. Even in her additional role as director, the playwright doesn’t seem to know what to do with her people: Stilted staging dampens the effectiveness of Florence Scagliarini’s impressively detailed scenic design.
I’m thrilled live theater is back from the dead, even if haltingly. With productions being postponed or hiatus-ed all around, I commend spit&vigor for mounting a relatively big staging with all the trimmings. (Ectoplasm itself was COVID-delayed by a week.) It will take time for the creative community to rise fully back to its feet. Baby steps. No help from the spirit world needed.