Tricks and Spirits

The veil between belief and disbelief is a fundamental element in the relationship between a play and its audience. If a play does its job, the veil should be transparent, allowing the viewer to move seamlessly from the real world into the fiction of the play. With Beyond the Veil, at Where Eagles Dare Theater, the veil seems barely existent, leaving all of the grinding nuts and bolts of the production visible to the audience. The production should stand out as a warning to theater artists whose scripts make promises that their budget cannot keep. John Chatterton's play follows a Victorian-era scientist, William Royce, as he sets out to expose the medium Florence King as a con artist. After the death of his wife and an inexplicable séance, Royce begins to believe that Florence and her mother may be more than parlor tricksters. Royce takes both women into his home and makes it his mission to scientifically validate Florence's abilities, even forming a bizarre sexual relationship with the ghost-like Trudi, a long-dead former lover from Germany.

In some places, the actors make very noble efforts. James Arden, Sean Dill, and Naama Kates, as Royce, the Vicar, and Florence, respectively, all bring a grounded sensibility to their characters, regardless of the sometimes farcical circumstances. Gregg Lauterbach has a tendency to ham and overreach as the foppish Lord Darnley, but ultimately his arrival onstage heightens the other actors' energy. Nora Armani's accent comes and goes, but her Mrs. King (Florence's mother) blazes to life in the second act. The pretty and likable Rachael Rhodes, playing Iris the maid, seems to have been given five or six lines as payment for doubling as run crew and manipulating the objects that Florence "levitates."

The production's real failure is the design and technical execution. Roi Escudero is credited as the sole designer of the scenic elements, costumes, art, props, and virtual effects, but she seems to be settling for things rather than achieving the production's true goals. Any interesting sequences building up to a ghostly visitation are ruined when the audience hears the slide projector click on and then realizes that the actors are marking time, waiting for it to project a brief and indistinguishable image of a ghost.

The script refers again and again to Royce's scientific equipment and his having brought this equipment into the main room (playing area), but it never happens. Even so much as a yardstick is kept offstage. There are numerous references in the text to lighting controls and a dial on the wall, both of which are tackily hidden just behind a jutting wall.

In the script, many of Florence's channelings occur by way of a spirit cabinet. The idea is that she is bound securely in a small space and therefore unable to produce the floating instruments and manifestations of ghosts that take place during the séance. As executed here, this device becomes laughable. The question of whether Florence is untying herself and flitting about Royce's study naked is answered when the audience can hear her disrobing and see her undoing the cords she was bound with. Most of Veil's special effects evoke only muted snickers when they should serve as a device to heighten the mystery and suspense. Even the simple manifestation of a chair being moved on its own volition is ruined when we see the "mover" brush the curtain just behind it.

Though the script suffers from some forced innuendo and double entendres, a lot of interesting character dynamics are at play. The repeated question of who is cuckolding whom reaches its crescendo at the start of the second act, and once the play settles into its more farcical purpose of producing the most elaborate con, the audience will no doubt find itself very engaged in what's going on.

Perhaps this production would benefit from a little variation in creative input. Here, the playwright also works as the theater owner, producer, and director. Any one of these tasks is taxing enough, and Chatterton seems to be juggling many responsibilities. The result is a production that looks thrown together, more along the lines of a "stumble-through" than a finished product. Also, with Escudero trying to fulfill all of the technical requirements, every area of design is bound to suffer. Separate lighting, scenic, and special effects designers might have focused more attention on the show's technical quality.

Beyond the Veil tries wholeheartedly to make daring choices but doesn't seem capably staffed to make the more spectacular moments seem smooth and believable. Tricks like floating instruments and projected ghosts are only able to trick the characters if they can fool the audience. Unfortunately, this Veil isn't thick enough to pull over anyone's eyes.

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