Theater & art

sTAGES | tERRY bYRNE

Schaffer spirited away by a play 20 years in the making

From left: Ken Baltin, Myriam Cyr, Brianne Beatrice, Anthony J. Goes, and Mat Schaffer.

Anthony Pham

From left: Ken Baltin, Myriam Cyr, Brianne Beatrice, Anthony J. Goes, and Mat Schaffer.

A séance, says playwright Mat Schaffer, is intrinsically dramatic.

“There’s something captivating about watching a vulnerable human being channel the spirit of another, communicating across time and space,” he says.

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Schaffer, longtime restaurant critic, radio’s “Culture Vulture,” and host of “Boston Sunday Review” on WBZ-FM, turned his fascination with the paranormal into the play “Simon Says: A Dramatized Séance,” which plays at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre through March 14. Schaffer has been developing the play for nearly two decades, turning his journalism skills toward researching famed mystics Jane Roberts and Edgar Cayce and interviewing Cayce’s son.

“I was working on the morning show on KISS-108 back then,” he says, “and I found myself thinking about these characters, their names, and their backgrounds. I finally just sat down and banged out a draft in 30 days.”

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Since then, the script has gone through many revisions, and has had several readings in New York and Boston, but the basic story has remained the same. A retired professor named Williston (Ken Baltin) has rescued a troubled but gifted young man named James (Anthony J. Goes) and is studying his ability to channel the spirit of an ancient being named Simon in an effort to scientifically prove the existence of souls. When a grieving widow (Brianne Beatrice) arrives for a reading, events of the distant past connect to the present through a paranormal experience.


“There’s an ancient Chinese saying that in a journey of 100 miles, 90 is about halfway,” Schaffer says with a laugh. “I have been lucky to have a director who has stuck with me, and I’ve had the opportunity to have a variety of talented actors interpret these characters and add so much to the story. The process of creating this play has been very collaborative.”

The themes of the play are simple, he says: “Reincarnation exists, and there are no accidents.”

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His goal with the play is to be truthful, not kitschy. “My wish is that people will come out of the theater and keep talking about the issues in the play,” he says. “I want them to turn to each other and say, ‘Why do I know you?’ ”

The subtitle of the play, “A Dramatized Séance,” was important, Schaffer says, because he wanted the performance to happen in real time. Everything the actors undergo, the audience experiences, too, he says.

To help create that atmosphere, Schaffer and director Myriam Cyr called on Boris FX for video and audio support. The company primarily creates special effects for film and commercials; this is its first foray into theater.

“The play happens in real time,” says Cyr, “and yet we meet all kinds of people and travel through time. I needed help telling that part of the story.”

Cyr says Boris FX’s video effects accentuate the action but remain unobtrusive. “We prerecorded some choreographed moves in front of a green screen,” says Cyr. The images are manipulated by software, and the effect is layered when a camera videotapes the action in real time.

“The play is a wonderful metaphor for the world of theater,” Cyr says. “We create secondary realities, other dimensions. We all have our own personal construct of what happens after death. What this play does is offer a starting point for a conversation. If you can achieve that in theater, you’ve done something important.”

A new season at Shakespeare & Co.

A sure sign of spring: Shakespeare & Company’s season announcement. A provocative play by Sarah Treem (“House of Cards,” “In Treatment”), a starring role for company founder Tina Packer in a world premiere, and the return of Obie Award-winning actor John Douglas Thompson are among the highlights of the Lenox-based company, under the leadership of its new executive director, Rick Dildine.

The season opens May 22 with Treem’s “The How and the Why”; followed by “Henry V” (June 18-Aug. 23); “The Comedy of Errors” (July 2-Aug. 23); Yasmina Reza’s “The Unexpected Man” (July 18-Sept. 6); the world premiere of Jane Anderson’s “The Mother of the Maid” (July 30-Sept. 6), starring Packer as Joan of Arc’s mother; the regional premiere of “Red Velvet” (Aug. 6-Sept. 13), starring Thompson as the first African-American actor to play Othello on the English stage in 1833. The company is staging several other performances through the summer. For the complete lineup and ticket information, go to www.shakespeare.org or call 413-637-3353.

Haile to lead Opera North

Evans Haile, former producing artistic director at the Cape Playhouse, is heading north. Haile, who is a trained pianist and conductor, is taking over as general director at Opera North, based in Lebanon, N.H. It mounts productions in July and August at the Lebanon Opera House. Haile led the Cape Playhouse for 14 years until leaving at the end of the 2013 season. For the past year, he has been a master artist in residence at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla.

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.
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