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October 18, 2011

The Spirit Play cashes in on the supernatural

The Strange Tree Group’s off- the-wall production, The Spirit Play, is the newest fantastical creation of acclaimed playwright Emily Schwartz. The show was born out of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ Incubator Program, which allows writers to have their plays workshopped on the stage with a cast and crew.

The Spirit Play, with its spooky supernaturalism, is nothing out of the ordinary for a theater group as whimsical as The Strange Tree Group. The play is set in 1870s Chicago, in the decorated home of an upper-class Victorian family. Mr. Gerard and the two Foust sisters are holding a séance for the Redspell family and their close friends.

In the first act, the Redspell family has an encounter with the dead during a séance put together by Mr. Gerard. The show is a great example of storytelling through objects and the environment. The lights go out and the con artists play silly tricks like knocking on the table and brushing the victims’ hands with a feather in the dark. It is a farcical show that leaves the audience unprepared for the serious matters that follow in the second act. Conflict arises when Mr. Tennant, a sad, drunk widower, demands to speak to his deceased wife and Mr. Gerard spots the massive diamond ring that used to belong to her. The sisters’ inner turmoil, suspicious family members, and the actual appearance of people from the beyond complicate matters even more and end with some intriguing questions.

As it turns out, deceiving people about speaking to their dead loved ones was a popular and profitable profession in large cities during the second half of the 19th century. The wealthy, as a rule, were plenty superstitious—the perfect victims for amateur magicians and showmen. Schwartz has said that she went through countless magazines and newspapers, finding reports of thieves putting on false séances and even some true believers giving their accounts of speaking to their long lost loved ones. This combination of skepticism and naïveté provided an excellent starting point for The Spirit Play.

A professional stage magician was hired to create visual illusions for the show. Brett Schneider is a member of the Magic Castle in Hollywood and has performed throughout the nation. His work on this show includes the apparent weightlessness of a table, a diamond ring with a mind of its own, and the several unexplainable disappearances of characters. His tricks alone add to the mystery and intrigue of the show.

The Spirit Play thrives because it considers not just the story of these distraught con artists, but also the possibility that ghosts may actually be entering our realm. Schwartz gives no clear answer, only visual clues, and it’s up to the audience to decide for themselves.

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