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Hot Dust

nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
January 25, 2013

Hot Dust

Sharla Meese in a scene from Hot Dust | Steven Boling

Desire is perhaps the force that drives so many people into the clutches of alternative religions. The seances of the nineteenth century were both a good way to contact one's deceased spouse and a source of income to cheating creators of ghost machinery such as the "ectoplasmic rig." This is a theme of Exploding Moment's show Hot Dust at Incubator Arts. If you're curious about what drove the Fox Sisters to be active in the Spiritualist movement in 1866, or what fueled Aimee Semple McPherson's success as a Pentacostalist in the 1920s, you will discover more through writer-director Catharine Dill's examination of various texts written between 1274 and 1972 and much exciting choreography.

Act One finds Kate Fox, celebrated spiritual medium, helping the widow Bennington to speak with her departed husband. The encounter features an accomplice waving a rag over the widow's head in the dark to simulate the movement of a ghost. Somehow, the widow discovers the hoax. Kate Fox moves on with her career, notably in Buffalo, but is sad that her talented sister Maggie has left the family enterprise to embrace Catholicism. Despite asking a friend to deliver a letter to Maggie in Columbus, Ohio, Kate cannot get in touch with her sister, leaving an impression of loneliness amid the successful swindling of so many.

Act Two concerns celebrated Los Angeles revivalist Aimee Semple McPherson and her ability to gain a broad following through radio broadcasts. This act is told backwards in eight episodes from 1933 to 1916. The show program was my main source for what was happening in this part of the story. Ms. McPherson, loved by many but also hounded by the press, appealed to legions of followers despite other newsworthy events of the period such as the "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925. This notorious battle of creationism and evolution seemed to convince adherents of both sides, as suggested by the onstage coupling of the courtroom drama (in Tennessee) and a Pentacostal pageant (in Los Angeles). The beginning of Ms. McPherson's story features laying on of hands in the tent revivals of the "Sawdust Trail" and the recitation of anti-Freudian rhetoric about "desiring machines" popularized by French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

Whether it is the confining dresses and petticoats of the 1860s or the swanky L.A. fashion of the 1930s, the costumes designed by Ms. Dill and Faryl Amadeus cannot make the performers sit down. They stand up, jump around and do special breathing exercises to express their spiritual longings. No one can deny that this is a force to be reckoned with, and the show raises many questions through its dreamlike presentation and non-expository storytelling. The notable success of women in this field (despite their own family setbacks) is of historical significance, perhaps better explored in the bibliography provided in the program. Lauryn McCarter's lighting focuses on the ingenuity of these women, while Geoff Gersh's compositions and Cooper Gardner's sound design make everything else in the world feel forlorn and scary. The cast, whose roles are not differentiated in the program, is made up of Faryl Amadeus, Prarie Rose, John Gasper, Chet Mazur, Sharla Meese, Dave Shelley, and Brooke Volkert.