By Todd Brian Backus; Directed by Ben Ferber
Part of Horse Trade's FRIGID New York
Off Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 3.6.16
Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street
by Sarah Weber on 2.22.16
Heather Harvey and Marina Shay in Emily Dickinson: Paranormal Investigator. Photo by Todd Brian Backus.
BOTTOM LINE: Emily Dickinson may be the best paranormal investigator in the world, but can she save her friend Helen Hunt Jackson and maintain her sanity around her insufferable mentor, Edgar Allen Poe?
Now entering its tenth year, the Frigid Festival continues presenting new works to New York audiences. Todd Brian Backus’ Emily Dickinson: Paranormal Investigator fits in Frigid’s dedication to upcoming fringe works and artists. An exciting combination of camp, suspense, and nerdy literature references, Emily Dickinson is a fun ride for anyone who enjoys genre mashups.
Set in the 19th century, the story is narrated by Helen Hunt Jackson (Marina Shay), trusted assistant of the exceptionally gifted paranormal investigator Emily Dickinson (Heather Harvey). After investigating strange happenings and exorcising a local in Salem, Helen finds a strange symbol on her wrist. It seems the symbol is a mark for possession, but Emily can’t figure out what the symbol actually stands for or where it comes from.
While tracking down answers, Edgar Allan Poe (Daniel Morgan Shelley), a fellow investigator and Emily’s former mentor, arrives out of the blue. After a devastating falling out, Edgar and Emily have not spoken in years, but now he returns to bargain with Emily—if she helps him find the source of this mysterious symbol he can help remove it from Helen’s wrist. Their search leads them to Brooklyn where they meet the strange Fox Sisters (Briana Sakomoto) who rap a premonition that the answers they seek are at Henry David Thoreau’s party. Can their rap-prophesies help Emily, Edgar, and Helen prevent imminent disaster? Or is there more to the sisters than meets the eye?
This premise may sound strange beyond the point of artistic integrity, but for those of us who delight in artistic oddities, Emily Dickinson: Paranormal Investigator is the perfect outing. Though it drags at parts, Backus’ quick-witted characters and his knack at genre-bending when you least expect it keeps the audience wrapped up in the adventure. Harvey and Shay are exceptionally wonderful on stage—Harvey’s dry humor and Shay’s winsome curiosity balance each other.
That said, when I saw the show there were two issues that bought me out of the story entirely. First and most persistent was the imbalance of sound. Jeff Sherwood's design works perfectly with the show, but the sound was often so loud you could barely hear the actors. Second was the actors’ obvious hesitation in the stage combat sequences. Hopefully both of these issues resolve themselves as the production continues.
If you’re even a little curious to see how Emily Dickinson and friends fit in an action-adventure with ghosts, swordplay, and a wasted Henry David Thoreau, you must go see Emily Dickinson: Paranormal Investigator.
(Emily Dickinson: Paranormal Investigator plays at the Kraine Theater at 85 East 4th Street through March 6, 2016. Remaining performances are February 25 at 8:50pm; March 1 at 10:30pm; March 6 at 5:10pm. Tickets are $10. Tickets are available at frigidnewyork.info.)
Emily Dickinson: Paranormal Investigator is written by Todd Brian Backus and directed by Ben Ferber. Costume design is by Emily White. Properties design is by Rachel Graf Evans. Sound design is by Jeff Sherwood. Lighting design is by Cheyenne Sykes. Fight choreography is by Conor Mullen and Callan Suozzi-Rearic, Stage Manager is Ellie Frances.
The cast is Heather Harvey, Leigh Puolos, Briana Sakamoto, Marina Shay, and Daniel Morgan Shelley.