nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 13, 2009
Charles Case is working on a book about con artists in the spiritualist movement. His new play at La MaMa, Shekinah, reflects his current interest. It's a work of fiction inspired by the exploits of skilled tricksters like Maggie Fox who convinced grief-stricken clients that they could communicate with the souls or spirits of deceased loved ones. It's a fascinating subject for theatre, but Case is only partially successful in sharing what he's learned about this strange and enduring phenomenon.
At the center of Shekinah is Billie Dove, a young woman who makes her living as a spiritualist, conducting seances and channeling the spirits of the dead in her body. It's clear to us throughout that Billie has no illusions about what she's doing: she knows her customers are "marks" and that she's getting paid for what amounts to an elaborate performance, though it's imperative that it never appear so.
Billie's current client is Dr. Richardson, a man of medicine who despite his training is convinced that Billie can commune with ghosts. He has hired her to bring his dead son back to him, and much of the play shows us Billie assuming the boy's character: the doctor interprets what she's doing as the return of his beloved child, but we know and she knows that she's acting. She's darned good at it though, and in these scenes Tavia Trepte shines, showing us how a virtuosic focusing of energy can convince anyone (who wants to be convinced) of anything.
What's missing from Case's script are the motivations of these two characters. Why is Dr. Richardson so desperate to reunite with his boy? How is it that he, a scientist of sorts, suspends his faith in the empirical to allow himself to believe in what Billie is doing? And as for the medium—we know she's doing this job for the money, but what drew her to it in the first place, and how does she really feel about what she does? Case provides a bit of a melodramatic ending that starts to address some of this, but there's no real arc in the play for Billie even though she's its ostensible protagonist: we don't sense that she knows anything at the end that she didn't already know at the beginning.
Case interweaves another story with Billie's in Shekinah, one about Billie's one-time lover Henry, also a spiritualist con man. This part of the play involves Henry teaming up with a strange young man named Wesley and eventually playing out an elaborate con that, though fascinating, remains a little cloudy as depicted here. Wesley is deranged in some way, a dramatic choice that only serves to upstage the more interesting things happening to Henry and Billie.
Peter S. Case (brother of the playwright and long-time La MaMa alumnus) is the director and designer. The pace is on the sluggish side, and some of the performances (notably Alex Emanuel's as Henry and Steven Francisco's as Wesley) feel over-the-top. There are some genuinely nifty recreations of the theatrical trickery of the seance, however; I would have liked to see more of that in the show.
Ultimately, Shekinah (the significance of whose title, an allusion to a Hebrew word meaning "the presence of God," is never made clear) fails to probe as deeply as we'd wish into either the modus operandi of the spiritualist con or the psychology of the would-be mark. There's a lot of interesting material here, but Case has not worked it into a fully satisfying play.