St. Ann’s Church, Brooklyn, NY
June 19, 1999
review by Donald Devet
This is a play of the head, not the heart. Any sign of emotions are kept in check.
Outside St. Ann’s it was a bright spring day just on the cusp of the summer solstice. But inside, a dark chill pervaded the church’s shadowy performance space. A dimly lit stage partially hidden by a scrim hinted of mystery to come.
From the very first images, it was evident that this was none other than a Janie Geiser production. The design of puppets (rod and shadow), masks and 16mm film clips echoed Geiser’s economic style featuring her signature use of a narrow color palette of black, white and gray. Ten puppeteers (a mixture from CalArts and New York) either in mask or black sheer face netting silently moved with machine-like precision.
The forced perspective set designed by Etta Lilienthal had a life of its own. Multiple levels offered flexible use of shadow screens, moving walls, hidden doors and even a revolving stage floor. Lighting by Miranda Hardy was exquisitely pin sharp. Every prop, every costume, every movement said “Geiser.”
But what is “Ether Telegrams” all about? The program notes gave only a few cryptic explanations– In the 19th century, afterlife manifestations offered solace to the bereaved. And “Ether Telegrams” incorporates images from several Edith Wharton’s ghost stories. Even with these two bits of information the plot remained difficult to follow. Lack of dialogue or narration required an extraordinary amount of concentration from the audience. Chip Epten’s scoring competently created mood and tension and pacing, but did little to keep the story coherent.
Only by reading a few of Wharton’s ghost tales for myself was I able to piece together some semblance of a story thread. The main plot of “Ether Telegrams” is loosely based on “Pomegranate Seed.” It’s a story of a second wife’s jealousy of her husband’s dead wife who appears to be making contact with him through a series of letters.
But “Ether Telegrams’” imagery transcended “story.” On the surface the play is a string of beautiful tableaus evoking the Victorian reserve of an Edward Gorey drawing but without the clever captions. This is a play of the head, not the heart. Any sign of emotions are kept in check. And when emotions rarely surface, they are bloodlessly stylized. The mood is chilly. Not because it’s a ghost story, but because of a lack of levity. Maybe there needed to be a few Edward Gorey captions. A little levity would have warmed things up. Yet I wonder. As Edith Wharton wrote– “if a ghost story sends a cold shiver down one’s spine, it has done its job and done it well.”