Wrapped in Gauze


Mum Puppettheatre, at the Arden Theatre Company Arcadia Stage, 40 N. Second St., through June 13, 215-482-7MUM

Yes, there is a séance in Séance, Robert Smythe’s new piece for Mum Puppettheatre. And it has everything you’d expect a séance to have: a mysterious-looking doctor/medium figure with a shaved head and a little goatee (Smythe, wearing a neutral mask, as does everyone in the company), a ouija board with a life of its own, table rappings, mysterious moanings and gibberings, mysterious hands emerging from the darkness tapping the client on the shoulder.

If this séance is less than awesome in performance, it may be because, by the time the séance occurs a quarter of the way through the piece, we’re already used to the theatrical technologies that make it happen. Why be surprised when a table levitates when we’ve already seen mysterious gauzy figures appear and disappear behind scrims, or when we’ve watched as an inanimate doll magically becomes a breathing, feeling child in a pinafore, manipulated by a puppeteer in black?

Smythe’s interest in séances and spiritualism, one reads, stems in part from his interest in the intersections, during the 19th century, between science and technology, theatrical magic shows, con men and people’s desperate need to believe in the unseen. And there are fragmentary traces of these disparate interests in Séance: For example, the doctor/medium spends much of his stage time performing lengthy magic tricks to one side of the stage, with floating globes and translucent boxes.

But Smythe’s interests have evidently shifted, during the year he researched and developed the piece as a Guggenheim fellow, from the charlatanism of séances to the process of mourning. The need to believe in séances, he observes, comes from an inability to let go of the dead, a desire to imagine that the deceased is still there, somewhere, willing and eager to speak to you and, more importantly, to be spoken to. A belief in the hereafter, in the porousness of the boundary between this life and the next, comes from the continuing desire to say "I love you."


The images are often stunning: floating figures, a young woman holding onto the loop of a noose, an inanimate doll that magically becomes a little girl in a pinafore…


And so the bulk of Séance has less to do with magic, theater and séances and more to do with death. A slender young woman watches as her daughter/sister/mother/patient (either I missed the clues, or else the narrative line here is not at all clear) sees a vision of a gauze-wrapped figure, and dies. The young woman dreams of opening a mysterious box, of unwrapping her deceased loved one’s gauze-wrapping. She attaches herself to another family (I missed what her relationship was here, too) that evidently has lost their infant son (daughter?). They too have visions of unwrapping the gauze-wrapped deceased. The father contemplates committing suicide, and eventually does so.

Without a strong (or comprehensible) narrative line, Séance becomes one long sequence of images. The images are often stunning: the floating figures; the young woman, holding on to the loop of the noose that the father had contemplated using, swinging, leaping and dancing, her feet barely touching the ground (mime/dance/ movement performer Daniel Stein is credited in the program as "metaphysical trainer"); and then there’s that wonderful Bunraku-puppet little girl in the pinafore. All of this transpires, wordlessly, to the magnificent music score by Adam Wernick, filled with wailing oboes, string quartets, a piano playing a parlor waltz and fragments of Bach solo cello partitas.

Smythe keeps his pieces in his company’s repertory year after year, and often reworks them. Let’s hope he does so here, so that the story is clearer, and the relation of the parts more evident. The images are all there; but at this point, there’s little more than the images, and the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

The other masked performers (no, I don’t know who plays whom) are Stephanie Carr, Scott Hitz, Aaron Cromie and Anne White.

Cary M. Mazer