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Séance

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 3/30/2005

Mum Puppettheatre, the Philadelphia ensemble behind this haunting and ethereal traipse into a tormented woman’s troubled past, sure give themselves a challenge. There is only one true puppet in this production—the likeness of a little girl eerily animated by a pair of black-clad handlers squatting in the shadows. But then you could say the five cast members are themselves puppets. They all wear peach-colored rigid masks that render them mute. Even their eyes appear only as black voids. Right away the two biggest tools actors use to drive a narrative and evoke emotion—dialogue and facial expression—are gone. This wordless, frozen-mug play must be propelled by body motion alone. Adam Wernick’s original score, which slips seamlessly between brooding piano, unaccompanied cello, and lilting vocal tracks, goes a long way toward setting moods. But the heavy lifting is done by the performers (uncredited as to their roles, but they include James Chen, Nicole Erb, Dawn Falato, David Johnson, and Robin Marcotte), who tastefully use nuanced gestures instead of overbroad pantomime. The gentle sweep of an arm and the earnest nodding of a head take on extreme importance when tongues are stilled and faces fixed.

The play is set in the late 19th century, when spiritualism collided with emerging modern methods of exposing unseen worlds. The work’s heroine first appears holding a sham séance, where she brushes participants with a feather to simulate spiritual contact from beyond. She’s exposed by a skeptical man of science, as evidenced by the odd electronic devices he brandishes, who ends up hypnotizing the would-be psychic. The result is a This Is Your Life journey through her problematic past and wounded subconscious. Featured are a semi-invalid mother addicted to intravenous drugs, the tragic death of an infant, and a young sailor who hangs himself. Or something like that. Halfway through this barely-over-an-hour work I gave up trying to parse every plot twist and surrendered to the beauty of the music and the performers’ deft movements as they engagingly conveyed emotion within the confines of their self-inflicted restrictions.

The addicted woman’s anxiously bobbing torso and imploring arms screamed louder than any detoxing junkie’s vocal wail. The heroine’s wringing hands and skittish steps loudly bespoke her tortured mind. When some performers swing about on a hangman’s noose, their motions are so graceful and at times full-on gymnastic, you can overlook the self-indulgence of such a dramatic gimmick.

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