Directed by Jimmy McDermott
Produced by The Strange Tree Group
At the DCA Storefront Theatre, Chicago
Ghosts come to life in sophisticated world premiere Emily Schwartz play
She is back – that talented zany playwright Emily Schwartz this time with a new sophisticated work that is part 19th Century melodrama and part cult mystery. This is a most engaging new work that both debunks and bring to life ghosts. The Strange Tree Group is know for their wickedly whimsical and delightful plays and The Spirit Play sure fills that bill.
Based on actual ‘true’ tales found in antique spiritualist magazines written between 1850 and 1900, Emily Schwartz dramatized stories from people who have been openly swindled by seance and spirit circles moderators.
The press notes state:
“Séances, spirit mediums, and supernatural occurrences took Victorian-era America by storm, as otherwise sensible people grasped at any means to reach out to their loved-ones on the other side. In the insular, upper-class world of 1870s Chicago, three scheming charlatans prey on the rich with elaborate tricks and magic during well-rehearsed séances. But when young Jane, the so-called medium, begins to receive unexpected communications from the dead, her world takes a stunning turn.”
We see a group of believers who are desperate, despite their misgivings, to connect with a departed loved one. The methodology of the seance and the trickery of the moderators and their medium add fuel to the desperate believers.
Playwright Emily Schwartz has an eccentric cast of Victorian characters including the hosting mother Mrs. Redspell ( Kay Schmitt) and her flamboyant fey son Hubert Redspell (the terrific Scott Cupper). The skeptic Doctor Buchard (the booming voiced Michael Thomas Downey) and his gullible wife (Jenifer Henry) plus Miss Neal (Carolyn Klein) and Miss Emery (Elizabeth Bagby) make up the participants in the spiritual circle moderated by Mr. Gerard (the commanding Matt Holzfeind) with the aid of Jane Foust (Kate Nawrocki)- the medium and her unseen sister Ruth (Delia Baseman). Add the late Mr. Tenneant (Bob Kruse) and you have the ingredients of a first class Victorian mystery.
Much of act one is a marvelous (and at time hilarious) seance that demonstrates how group dynamics and shared beliefs (with some smart trickery) can overwhelm those inclined to believe in ghosts. Jane Foust does start to channel energy from the spirit world as the sham seance unfolds. But once it is over, Gerard scolds Jane and her sister for going off script. Gerard’s plans to do a second night of seance in order to acquire a valuable wedding ring from Mr. Tennant becomes complicated when both Ruth and Jane start freelancing their powers toward Mr. Tennant’s desperation to communicate with his dead wife.
Beliefs and actual involvement with the spirits collide in this very smart plotted story that features excellent production values with nicely timed lighting (by Jordan Kardasz0 and sound (by Michael Huey) with exquisite magic (designed by Brett Schneider). Live piano music played by Marty Scanlon added fine underscoring to the work. These techniques totally engage us as we journey with the characters in wonderment as to what will happen next. Rich characters, a surprising plot twists and an unexpected ending mark The Spirit Play as a most entertaining new mystery that keeps us guessing throughout. Non-believers will admire the stage craft, believers will be reinforced in their faith as the spirits mingle with the charlatans. Both will find The Spirit Play as a sophisticated, genuine mystery in the best traditions of 19th Century melodrama. Emily Schwartz and her creatives at The Strange Tree Group (including the fine direction by Jimmy McDermott) have matured into fine storytellers. See this original show and be impressed by a fresh voiced Group of artists.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: October 7, 2011
At DCA Storefront Theater, 66 East Randolph St., Chicago, IL