A private séance at an intimate dinner party in 1912, among the guests a famous magician based on the real-life Harry Houdini hell-bent on debunking spiritualism.
Playwright Sara Fellini has an ear for dialogue. She is also an excellent researcher finding fascinating, little known historic events to use as the premises for at least some of her plays from the evidence of last summer’s The Wake of Dorcas Kelly and her new play Ectoplasm, now at The Players Theatre in another spit&vigor theatre company production. However, working as her own director and dramaturg, she has a bad habit of trying to get everything into each story.
Ectoplasm counts among its themes and topics: poetry, women’s rights, prostitution, women’s suffrage, love, death, the paranormal, the supernatural, fraudulent mediums – and the love that dare not speak its name, except here it is openly discussed, circa 1912. Each and every character has an agenda which is too many plot devices, while the actual plot never quite resolves itself. While the play has been given an elegant physical production, the script does not entirely hang together or feel satisfying.
The ostensible plot of Ectoplasm appears to be a footnote in the career of magician Harry Houdini who spent a great many years and much time debunking fake mediums. Here, the Houdini-inspired character is called Ira Orinthall who attends a séance in 1912 at the home of wealthy poet Madame Francine Montfort, with the intention of proving it a fraud. The séance is to be given by the latest ornament to the profession, Sara Marshall and her assistant Kaye Schultz. Orinthall attends with his wife Annette, a suffragette who has been jailed and tortured. Another guest with professional credentials is Dr. George Crookes, a scientist of the paranormal, whose wife Miska is interested in blood rituals. Mme. Montfort’s new butler is Callum Holes who some years before worked alongside Sara at a hotel.
Before the séance begins, there is much clever (though not witty) repartee which reveals among other things that Sara and Kaye are in love but have never done anything about it. The guests appear to know that their hostess has a voracious Sapphic appetite for attractive young women, all of which seems a bit too bohemian to be spoken about openly at an upper-class dinner party in 1912. Is this taking place in Greenwich Village? We are never told where we are or what city for certain.
We also learn that this is Kaye’s last night as a medium as she feels that Sara is taking it all too seriously although she appears to know that it is all acting. Sara’s group séance appears to conjure up an unexpected guest, the Arctic explorer Elisha Kane, an actual historic personage. Her private sessions with Mrs. Crookes and Mr. Orinthall leave it as an open question whether she has any real skills in this area. Where the author makes use of real facts, she tends to play fast and loose with them in order to make things come out her way.
As directed by Fellini, the acting is very uneven; whether this is a problem of miscasting or working with the actors is debatable. As the hostess Madame Francine Montfort, Florence Scagliarini (also responsible for the attractive design of the wood-paneled sitting room) is rather mannered in trying to create a slippery and cunning character. As Ira Orinthall, inspired by magician Harry Houdini, Adam Belvo is both pompous and stilted which doesn’t sit well with a character who tells us that he is the son of immigrant parents, while Nicholas Thomas’ Dr. George Crookes seems to be comically naïve. Both Sophia Radix as Ira’s wife Annette and Raina Silver as George’s wife seem to be in an altogether different drawing room comedy, unless that was the author’s original intention.
While Jillian Cicalese and Caitlin Dullahan-Bates as Sara and Kaye, respectively, initially seem to be the main focus of attention, they do not remain so. Cicalese’s Sara is commanding as the medium but fails to give us a coherent view of her profession: although she admits to giving a performance, she still believes she is a priestess with a higher calling. Dullahan-Bates’ Kaye seems very conflicted as written by Fellini. Drew Reilly as the butler Callum and Federico Mostert as explorer Elisha Kane are rather callow in underwritten roles. The most successful element is the beautiful costuming by Claire Daly for the elegant evening gathering. Chelsie McPhilimy’s lighting design carries a great deal of the weight of the plot with sudden blackouts and intimate lighting for inset scenes that are lit differently from the main stage action.
While Ectoplasm is superficially intriguing, it is unfocused and diffuse, attempting to cover too many issues and therefore not covering any of them thoroughly enough. The tone is agreeably consistent but the play drifts into too many tangents. Like Fellini’s last play The Wake of Dorcas Kelly, this new one also uses anachronistic music and songs even though the historic time period is very consistent in the sets and costumes, if not in the dialogue or topics, when what is needed is palm court music of the 1910’s. Ectoplasm is as frustrating as it is entertaining. This is one more example of where a playwright should not direct the first production of his or her own play, but use another pair of eyes to help with decisions.
Ectoplasm (through February 13, 2022)
spit&vigor theatre company
The Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street, Greenwich Village, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.spitnvigor.com
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission
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