nytheatre.com review by J Jordan
August 16, 2009
I look forward to FringeNYC every year because I know that whatever I see will be interesting and unique. Often I start out interested in bizarre titles and bawdy scenarios that populate regular Fringe fare. Once past all that I always find something special, something quieter that might be overlooked but shouldn't. This year that show is Ectospasms.
Written and directed by Jessica Bonenfant and Edmund B. Lingan, Ectospasms tells the story of the Fox sisters, Maggie and Kate, who, in 1848 had the premiere experience of interacting with the departed. And by departed I mean deceased. Their historical, recorded experiences are considered the birth of spiritualism. The sisters' tale, along with that of a medium, her various clients, and the spirits who visit them, is told primarily in snippets through interpretive dance. The Fox sisters knock out conversations with the dead on a wooden table—do we believe them? Voiceovers question the girls' every move. The medium convulses and pulsates as spirits take over her body attempting to reunite with their saddened, still-living loved ones who simply can't let go. The living come to her with hope—but what do they leave with?
The spirits, equally appealing as their living counterparts, are manifested as gloriously lithe dancers and/or communicate through projections on a white sheet, which also serves as a visually stunning separation between the two worlds. Words typed on the sheet emphasize important moments in the story.
My knowledge of the intricacies of dance is limited to what I learn from Dancing with the Stars, but I can attest I was genuinely moved by the dancing in Ectospasms. All the performers in the piece—Rachel Borgman and Kristina Walton as the sisters, Vanessa Hardy as the medium, and Will Clark, Sara Greenfield, a haunting Itsuko Higashi, and Ali Psiuk as various clients, spirits, et al—are talented and captivating.
While at times I was keenly aware of the stylization and choreography playing out in front of me, movement (rather than dialogue, which can be hard when you're dealing with the departed) told the stories in a meaningful way. The choreography by Bonenfant in collaboration with the performers is engaging and ethereal, perfectly matched to the story.
The production elements in this piece were particularly compelling to me. The set design by Frankie Teuber is simple and elegant, allowing the scenes and mood to shift effortlessly between the two stories. The lighting by Cris Dopher seems to glide over the set and crept up on me at times, which was chilling and thrilling. The few props—a photo of a departed loved one, an old-time camera and tripod, a small notebook—are extremely well-chosen and appropriate for the piece. Ectospasms is a costumer's dream, and Lisa Renee Jordan has taken full advantage of that. Jordan's pieces are period-appropriate and well-crafted—the dresses worn by the Fox sisters; the medium's turban and velvet dress, which is really more drapery than apparel—but she also manages to convey both the joy of life and the sadness everyone has knowing they will eventually lose it. Everything in her offerings is gorgeous, but a few standouts include an endlessly long black veil and a white hat, both brought to life—afterlife?— by the performers.
The music (David Nagler for the Fox sisters, music for the medium by Avery James Brooks and The Album Leaf) is supportive and moving, guiding the action rather than taking focus away from it. The characters' fear, confusion, and sadness are well-echoed by Barbara Vlahides's sound design. It is apparent the design team worked hand in hand with the performers and the writer-directors to create something truly special. Their inspiration from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 2005 exhibit The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult was successfully translated into a living piece of art that is, in a word, beautiful to watch. The work and influence of The Institute for the Study of Performance and Spirituality (ISPS) was also very apparent.
Ectospasms is an excellent, if short (it is billed at an hour and a half but is around 45 minutes long) example of the wonderful, and other-worldly, pieces FringeNYC offers every year.