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'Emily Dickinson: Paranormal Investigator' at FRIGID New York

PowerOut’s newest show is an ahistorical romp through literary history.

Photo by Todd Brian Backus

What if literary greatness were not simply a goal to aspire to, and was in fact a symptom of a deeper spiritual torment? And what if that sense of temporal displacement led to other conditions, such as alcoholism and the need to hunt supernatural monsters? And what if Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe teamed up together to use their Gift to defeat the most challenging predator they had ever met?

Welcome to Emily Dickinson: Paranormal Investigator.

This delightful romp of a piece by Todd Brian Backus and directed by Ben Ferber brings us into a world in which literary talent is a side effect, and one can use one's own poetry as spells. Despite its campy premise and mashup of modern and period speech, this PowerOut production features surprisingly well thought-out and consistent world-building, explaining away everything from Dickinson's characteristic reclusiveness to the powerful sway of the legendary spirit-summoning Fox Sisters. Narrated from the perspective of clever young (but not supernaturally Gifted) writer Helen Hunt Jackson, Poe and Dickinson battle it out to uncover and defeat a more organized and dangerous demonic threat than either of them has ever seen before, one that has even put Helen at risk of possession and worse.

It is quite impressive what this production manages to accomplish with just five actors, jumping back and forth between ghosts, sword-fighting poets and frat boy Henry David Thoreau. Heather Harvey's bullheaded Emily Dickinson and Marina Shay's charming and eager Helen Hunt Jackson form the perfect crimefighting duo intentionally reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, and though the play does not do as much with the reference as it could, their story brings us straight into the world of a detective drama. Meanwhile, Daniel Morgan Shelley gives us a gregarious but compassionate Poe, while Leigh Poulos' Walt Whitman and Brian Sakamoto's Fox Sisters are as hilarious as the actresses (who play several other roles) are versatile.

Emily Dickinson: Paranormal Investigator also accomplishes quite a bit without much tech at all, a simple costume piece serving as a convincing ghostly possession and plenty of exciting stage combat to engage the audience. Some of those low-tech choices, however, read better than others, such as the puppet train and the Fox Sisters' demonic rap song that is as unsurprising as it is difficult to hear. Lighting and sound are both a challenge in this production, as performers have a tendency to speak quickly in dim light with their backs to the audience; spookiness shouldn't come at the expense of clarity.

Still, perhaps what is most appealing in this performance is the energy and camaraderie of the literary elite, the society Helen so desires to join and which ultimately justifies the events of the play. Audiences will find themselves cheering for Dickinson and Poe as well as for their well-spoken opponents, and if you have conflicted feelings about the American literary greats, this play will justify all of your misgivings. At the very least, you will certainly find yourself reading Emily Dickinson's poetry in quite a different light.

Emily Dickinson: Paranormal Investigator plays as part of the FRIGID New York festival through March 6.

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