Review: Flood of Spirits

World premiere conjures up a haunting evening

Rebecca Maag in Flood of Spirits (Photo by Bret Brookshire)
Some productions are designed for a specific environment. Some resonate with a moment. Sometimes, by intent and happenstance, one achieves both. thus is the happy and tragic fate of Flood of Spirits, the new interactive play by Rebecca Maag that debuted last night at FronteraFest.

Or, rather, semi-debuted. Writer/director Maag had created Flood of Spirits specifically for the intimate space of the smaller dining room of Hillside Farmacy. But the sudden freeze this week had meant a last-minute relocation of opening night to a private home in South Austin, and the complete cancelation on Wednesday night's performance. So with the thaw underway, and the Farmacy one of the lucky businesses to still retain power, Maag and her small troupe were able to perform where and how it was intended.

But the moment, the freeze that has rendered Austin immobile and delayed this debut, made this performance more evocative. The sense of catastrophe in the air seeped into the room and twirled the smoke from one of the long matches that Madame Gardot (Robyn Beckham) used to light the oil laps on each table to summon the spirits of the dead and drowned.

The audience begin as voyeurs, overhearing a conversation in the butler's pantry between two conspirators: Madame Gardot, or Lucille, as her lover and petty thief George (Justin Beckham) calls her. It's Austin in 1900, in the shadow of the great granite dam disaster, when the city's dam feeding the hydroelectric power-house on Lake McDonald collapsed, killing dozens. Gardot has descended like a vulture, a fake spiritualist wandering from town to town making cold readings, using a little bit of procured information to convince those in mourning that their loved ones have indeed crossed the veil to a better place. Yet how much of a sin is it, she logicalizes, to bring a little solace to the grieving?

As the action relocates to the drawing room of the Drake house, the audience becomes participants. Upon entering, everyone is issued a card with a family biography, and an item connected to the one they lost in the torrent (I was Frank Pimpleton, one of only two workers who survived the flood). The Drakes have opened their doors to the community: or rather, Alice, the lady of the house, has. She's the true believer, unlike her more-than-skeptical husband, Henry (Greg Buis, excellently dismissive).

The plot will be fairly apparent to anyone with a devious mind, but the pleasure of Flood of Spirits is in the recreation of a turn-of-the-century spiritualist gathering - one for dramatic intentions, rather than the entertaining educational experience of the Austin Seance. Robyn Beckham works the room exquisitely, interacting with every attendee, drawing them in until the final, inevitable narrative turn presaged by a too-accurate Tarot reading of Henry's future.

Much as she anchors the night, the show also depends on period details (making Hillside Farmacy's sympathetic early 20th century restoration close enough for architectural accuracy), and on the tricks of the spiritualist trade. It pays to keep as much of a wiley eye on exactly what George, sequestered in that butler's pantry, is up to as it does on the tender manipulations of Lucille, or Henry's growing discomfort, or Alice's wide-eyed credulity.

While the weather curtailed Flood of Spirits's already brief festival run, writer/director Maag is promising a revival in the Fall. That's one resurrection definitely worth attending.

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