With whispered voices echoing subliminally around the black lined cellar just beneath the threshold of comprehension, this is a mysterious tale of the sinister and macabre, an approximation of the true tale of the three Fox sisters of New York State, among the most celebrated and infamous mediums of the late nineteenth century.
It begins in desperation and drink and death as eldest Leah (Annie Montgomery), then nineteen and twenty three years younger respectively Margaret (Anne Windsland) and Kate (Annie McCoy) recall the night a beggar intruded on their own miserable poverty as he sought shelter and foolishly told their father (Aaron Novak) of the valuable double headed eagle coin he had in his possession.
In later years, they would trace the events of their lives to that night, when they listened through the walls as their father beat the man to death and bricked up his body in the wall, but, maintains Kate, “Mr Splitfoot chose us because we were special,” and she claims it was he who gave them their gifts.
Though her excitable younger sisters began to claim to hear voices and see ghosts Leah made no such statements, but with a knowledge of the success of the travelling show of the Davenport Brothers and “the talent of lying, the second nature of ambition,” she was the one who pushed her sisters.
A story within a story where each of the truths sits on the shoulders of secrets and lies, this is both the Fox sisters’ performance as mediums, their séances attracting attention first locally then nationally with a proposed tour overseas to Britain, and the fractured narrative of their tragic lives and those that intersect them, the living and the dead.
As with the promises of Kate and Margaret to bring forth the spirits of deceased loved ones to impart messages from beyond, audience engagement is crucial, thus the paying customers are requested to stand “in honour of the dead” before the show begins and are then complicit in whatever follows.
With five actors channelling a whole ensemble of characters there are moments when it descends into a morass of voices, and it’s easy for the audience to become as lost as the hysterical sisters, caught up in the lie and the cult that has grown around their reputation, Kate screaming that she is tortured by a powerful spirit of a young man who died in a coalmine collapse; for a price, her sinister patron Mr Splitfoot will release her.
Denounced as “frauds and charlatans,” there are nevertheless those who still need to believe, and those who despite the pragmatic nature of their minds are drawn to the sisters such as the explorer Elisha Kent Kane who sought to pull Margaret from their shared madness yet confessed to once seeing a witch and her pack of wild, blinded dogs on the icepack.
With impressively physical performances by all, it is Windsland’s middle sister who is shortchanged between the demands of McCoy’s Kate and Montgomery’s Leah, trying to keep a stable hand on an increasingly unstable tiller while Novak rotates through a variety of parts, often in semi-drag, but it is Vasile Flutur, co-writer with John P McEneny, who fearless twitches between showmanship and demonic rages in his many parts.
It is as Corporal Bran Sartorious that he brings the show to a close which echoes its origin, in a sweltering basement filled with tragedy and a desperation to believe that answers and forgiveness are forthcoming from beyond black walls which return only silence.