Dark Comedy SHEKINAH Comes To La MaMa E.T.C 3/5-3/22

"Shekinah," a new dark comedy by Charles Case, directed by Peter S. Case, peels open the world of post-WWI spiritualist con artists.

"Shekinah," a new dark comedy by Charles Case, revolves around the tragic, humorous and desperate lives of early twentieth century spiritualists. People who lost loved-ones to WWI or a child to polio made especially easy prey for these practitioners of mystic bunkum, who would abuse the desperate and those whose desperation made them blind. La MaMa E.T.C. will present the play in its First Floor Theater March 5 to 22, directed by Peter S. Case.

Spiritualism has always been a desperate leap of faith and a refuge for the grieving. For those with the skill and cunning to spin silk out of suffering, it was an irresistible opportunity. Much of "Shekinah" involves a trio of such charlatans: a woman named Billie Dove, whose talent as a medium is legendary, and two male cohorts in crime, Henry, a cantankerous old vaudevillian, and Wesley, his young protégé-turned-murderer.

The setting is 1919 Chicago. Billie and Henry have been on the con for a long time when they meet the ultimate mark: a wealthy doctor clinging to his belief in ghosts as his last hope to be a father to his dead son. The craft and mendacity of the threesome are matched against the intelligence and rational humanity of the doctor, who invites Billie Dove to live in his home and channel his ten-year-old son. Abandoning her accomplices, Billie ends up playing governess and caretaker to a thought, a wisp of air and lingering love.

The production will use many of the simple yet effective tricks of the period to reproduce the séance magic performed by sham mediums in the 1920's in the "spook racket." The title of the play is a Hebrew word meaning a symbol or manifestation of God on earth. The title specifically relates to Billie Dove and her ability to convince all those around her, even the skeptical, that she is a vessel for the divine. It also recalls the title of one of the first spiritualist newspapers, which was published in the 1850s.

The play is also an absorbing study of the larger-than-life character types of the period. Billie, one of the great mediums of her age, is nearly mythic in her talent, famous among the believers for her ability and an icon in the "game" for her stamina, tenacity and ability to see through all walks of humanity. She is a woman who professes to touch the divine, trying to convince herself she is bringing happiness to those without hope, yet she can no longer hide the fact she is a hypochondriac and a liar. Henry, a gambler, alcoholic and old hand at the séance game, is an ex-lover of Billie. Although he is living off a rich clientele, he is forever lost without her. Wesley is a serial thief and emerging killer who has been newly inducted to the spook racket by Henry. Their "mark," Dr. Richardson, is a surgeon and a prominent researcher of occult phenomena. Despite his wisdom and experience, he is ultimately unable to face the pain of the loss of his son.

The character of the Dr. Richardson is based on a composite of medical men of the period, including Arthur Conan Doyle, who were convinced that spiritualism was real. Playwright Charles Case says, "They thought spiritualism was science on a different level. They believed in such things as a V-Ray (Vital Ray) that you could measure and test; that it was the source of ghosts. They thought this phenomena was legitimate and worthy of serious research."

The cast includes Tavia Trepte, Rick Zahn, Alex Emanuel and Steven Francisco. The production is designed by Peter S. Case. Its musical score is composed by Bruno Louchouarn.

Playwright Charles Case is a free lance journalist and historian living in Los Angeles. Last year, he published a story on William Mumler, the first practitioner of "spirit photography" (taking pictures of ghosts), in American History Magazine. He is presently working on a book on the shams and charlatans who infected the spiritualist movement. He has an M.A. in History from UCLA. He writes, "The deceptive tricks and practices employed by these sham mediums/psychics in the séance parlor were remarkably theatrical. Yet no play that I have ever seen (or read) has employed or explored them."

"Shekinah" is Charles Case's first play. It displays a masterful command of the ecstatic, poetic language of spiritualism. Case points out that among con artists, there was a whole sub-tradition of sham psychics and spiritualists who had their own con lingo. "They were disreputable people who talked and thought like crooks, thinking in perverse terms, filling their greed from other people's grief," he points out. The play, then, juxtaposes their gutter language with the high-flying language of mysticism and spiritual journey that they also practiced.

Director and Designer Peter S. Case is the brother of the playwright and has been involved with La MaMa since 2002. He directed "Death and the Ploughman" there in 2006 and performed a number of leading roles as a member of the Great Jones Repertory Company. He studied theater in Minnesota and graduated from Columbia University with an MFA in Acting. He has worked in theatre regionally and on both coasts as an actor, designer and director. His recent designing credits include "Death and the Ploughman," "Motel" and "Skins." He has worked the past six years with the La MaMa Umbria International Directors Symposium near Spoleto, Italy, assisting a number of well known American and international theater artists. He lives and works in London.

Composer Bruno Louchouarn studied artificial intelligence in Paris and obtained a Ph.D. in music composition at UCLA where he studied composition with Ian Krouse, Paul Chihara, and Jerry Goldsmith. His music has a broad range, from the futuristic cantina music heard in the film "Total Recall" to live experimental multimedia performances, works for large orchestra and music for the theater. His compositions frequently call on percussion, electronic music, and multimedia, often focusing on the performative aspects of language and music, the structure of myths, and rhetoric. His work has been performed at RedCat in Disney Hall, UCLA's Royce Hall, the Getty Center, and the Getty Villa. He teaches music, multimedia, and cognitive science at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

March 5 to 22, 2009
La MaMa E.T.C. (First Floor Theater), 74A East Fourth Street
(Presented by La MaMa E.T.C.)
Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 2:30 pm
$18 tdf/v; Box office (212) 475-7710; online ticketing www.lamama.org
Runs 1:40.

 

 

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