The spooky true story of the 1860s spiritualist movement comes to life in Washington Park.
In post-Civil War America, three young girls from western New York claimed they could see spirits and were hailed as the leaders of the new spiritualist religious movement. Mr. Splitfoot is the story of the mysterious Fox sisters, an original play written by Piper Theatre artistic director John McEneny and staged for free in Washington Park in Park Slope, Brooklyn. An ensemble of five very talented actors collectively tell the tale, from the true to the imagined and the in-between where their devil resided.
A Spooky True Story
The historical events, as remembered, are simple. Two girls in 1860s New York, Maggie and Kate Fox, came to believe that a creature they called "Mr. Splitfoot" was possessing them and allowing them to communicate with the dead. With the assistance of their oldest sister Leah, the three turned the game into a stage show that made them a fortune by communicating with the lost loved ones of their audiences. As the Fox sisters grew more popular, however, more and more outsiders began to accuse them of fraud, and even the girls did not appear to know what they believed.
Mr. Splitfoot tells the story of how the Fox sisters succeeded and how they failed, but also of the family drama at the heart of it all. Alcoholism, abandonment and the need to support one another thread their way through the play, and no one's motivations are entirely pure.
A True Ensemble Play
In this stripped down production, taking place on a bare stage similar to what you might imagine the Fox sisters might have performed their act on back in the nineteenth century, it is the acting that stands out. Melissa Diaz plays an earnest young Kate, a girl so convinced in her duties to the ghosts that she becomes tormented by the stories she tells, while Vicky Finney Crouch's Leah is transfixing--ruthless and loving all at once as she both protects and makes a profit off of her sisters and their ghosts. Yet, it is the middle child, Maggie, played by Anne Windsland, and her indecision about whether they are telling the truth at all that is at the heart of the tale.
Interspersed throughout the story of the sisters, meanwhile, are ghost story interludes--what the sisters believed or claimed to have heard from the spirits they communicate with. Both comic and tragic, these stories provide glimpses into the difficult lives of 1860s Americans, from soldiers and miners to immigrant families. They also provide the opportunity for the five actors to take on other roles, playing with age and gender as well as degrees of realism.
While some larger scenes felt a little sparse and could have used another ensemble member or two, this staging allowed for some moments of creative storytelling, with one actor playing a cow and another in an absurd fat suit. Another cast member could also have helped to cut down on the number of moments ensemble member Adam Weppler had to play female roles, which seemed to distract from the show more than add to it.
Mr. Splitfoot: A Creative New Play
On the whole, however, the cast did a fantastic job of bringing this intriguing story to life. Whether it was the beautiful and historically accurate costumes (except for Weppler's distracting underwear ensemble) or the fact that Mr. Splitfoot (Vasile Flutur), the devil, controls the telling of the entire story in a delightfully creepy fashion, this play is an exciting first attempt of what will surely be a successful play. Its greatest strength, I believe, is that the whole play challenges you to decide, or not to decide: Is this real? Mr. Splitfoot plays on Wednesdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 8:30pm in Washington Park through July 20. More information about the show is available here. This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.