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Simon Says See Schaffer's Séance

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Saturday Mar 14, 2015

Simon Says See Schaffer's Séance

Mat Schaffer has a passionate interest in the life of the soul. Holding a degree in interdisciplinary studies in mysticism from Tufts, the longtime South Ender fittingly has his lead character investigating the Essenes, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Kabbala in his first play "Simon Says." Dr. Williston, his fictional veteran scientist, devotes considerable research to proving the existence of the soul after death. Williston also means to find out if reincarnation is for real. Under Miriam Cyr's sharp direction, Little Seer Productions is turning Schaffer's thoughtfully disarming drama into an absorbing exploration at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Subtitled "A Dramatized Séance," Schaffer's 90-minute premiere plays out in real time. Theatergoers are instantly spectators-not only to Williston's initial discussion with reluctant medium James but also to the actual subtitle channeling-to the first private reading in Williston's house. At first Williston and James seem to be at a crossroads on the way to a stalemate. The paranormal scientist, who has been studying James for 12 years, seems to believe that death is not an ending but rather a continuation; he shares Ralph Waldo Emerson's view that all things only retire and return. Quite simply, he wants the young channel to join him back on the road. To that end, he has pulled James' tuition for college-where he is enorlled to study the Dead Sea Scrolls. At this point, the young medium has decided to give no more readings.

James takes back that decision after meeting Annie Roberts, a high school science teacher (whose aunt sent her to Williston) who is agonizing over the death of her husband Jake two years earlier in a car accident. After arriving at Williston's home, well detailed by set designer Janie Howland, she notices items that turn out to be an annotated edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, tarot cards signed by Houdini, a shard from a temple in Jerusalem and a figurine from Judea. While skeptical about mediums and paranormal activity, the inquisitive widow does remark there is something about James that inspires confidence. Endorsing James' powers, the scientist insists, "That boy is the gateway to the other side."

Will that 'gateway' involve a channeling calling up the soul of Annie's late husband? Pivotal to the channeling is the striking transformation of James during an apparent trance into an ancient figure called Simon. Some theatergoers may call to mind Jewish scholar Arizal's significant work "Shaar HaGilgulim" ("Gate of Reincarnation") and notions of soul migration as the play speaks of Muslim leader Saladdin and a Jewish engineer who died at Dachau.

Speaking through James, Simon describes the soul as "a suit of clothing" and speaks of having arthritis in a previous life. Tellingly, he calls up details about the Essenes, the tightly structured groups associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls-Jews described here as "under but not with the Romans." To hear Simon, he himself was an Essene cared for by a surrogate mother named Rachel. As he continues, he identifies Essene prophet Nathan as the greatest of all, but not false at first. Murder mystery elements include the possibility that Nathan murdered Rachel's late husband Aaron.

How will Simon's insights impact all three séance participants? Will each one choose love or fear as an approach to life? Will they respectively identify with the Essenes Simon presents? Is Williston's long sought for scientific proof within reach? Schaffer's intriguing play may not fully answer all of these questions.

Still, "Simon Says" proves consistently engaging.

Director Cyr keeps the characters' ongoing conflicts and occasional understandings equally persuasive. Ken Baltin as Williston has good paternal feeling for James and devotion to his research. At the same time, Schaffer ought to make the character of the alternately forceful and vulnerable scientist more complex. Baltin does his very best to give him more dimension. Anthony J. Goes is a standout as high integrity channel James. His transformations from James to Simon and back are smooth and instantly convincing. Brianne Beatrice smartly conveys Annie's early skepticism as well as her growing openness to considerations of the soul.
John Malinowski's rich lighting and Johnathan Carr's inventive projection have shimmering immediacy. Simon says, make sure you attend Schaffer's inviting séance.

Simon Says: A Dramatized Séance, Little Seer Productions, Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through March 14. 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com

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