Simon Says

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday March 6, 2015

Anthony J. Goes, Brianne Beatrice, and Ken Baltin in Mat Schaffer's 'Simon Says,' continuing through March 14 at the BCA
Anthony J. Goes, Brianne Beatrice, and Ken Baltin in Mat Schaffer's 'Simon Says,' continuing through March 14 at the BCA  (Source:Leighanne Sturgis)

Boston radio host and "Culture Vulture" Mat Schaffer has long been a media critic; now he tries his hand at play writing with the supernatural drama "Simon Says."

Schaffer deftly sets up the drama between two of the play's three characters in the opening minutes. James (Anthony J. Goes) is a brilliant, troubled young man scarred by social rejection and by his stage mother's attempts to parlay his gifts into a money-making side show. James wants to leave the turmoil of his past behind and better himself with a college education; Professor Williston (Ken Baltin) can't, or won't, let him go, clinging to James as the best hope for his success in proving, as he says time and again, that "the soul continues after death."

This seems a narrow and egotistical concern, when held up to the vast realm of possibility that proof and understanding of a spiritual level of existence would open up. What would such a discovery mean for the hard sciences of physical, chemistry, and biology, which dictate that the processes of life are strictly material? For that matter, what would it mean for the world's religions, which -- despite centuries of self-congratulatory dogmas -- would almost certainly be demolished?

The play almost lightly plays Williston's obsessions against that bigger canvas. As it happens, James is not a "medium" -- someone who talks to the souls of the departed -- but a channeler. What he does is act as a conduit for higher beings -- or, at least beings who exist outside of physical reality -- who can, through James, interact with human beings stuck in the limitations of their poor physical perceptions. The being James channels is called Simon; hence, the play's title, which knowingly carries its pun through the play's mounting levels of revelation.

James and Williston have just had a major disagreement when a woman named Annie (Brianne Beatrice) enters the picture. She's the niece of someone named Shirley Cayce (whom we can only supposed has some relationship to the famed 20th century psychic Edgar Cayce, given Williston's tremendous excitement at welcoming her into the home he shares with James). But Annie isn't there to advance the cause of spiritualism, or even of science (which would be understandable, given that she's a science teacher, and devoted to the quantifiable). She's there in hopes (contrary to her own deeply held rational beliefs) that James can somehow contact her dead husband -- another egotistical and narrow mission, one thinks to oneself. But then the primal emotions of grief and rage begin to pout from Annie, and the story takes root in the earthly questions of virtue and punishment. Specifically -- and this is boiling things down quite a bit -- why do tragedies befall the undeserving?

It's a good question; a perennial question; the major sticking point in debates about religion, and the clash of viewpoints in which faith positing a benign deity that guides our lives runs up against the plainest of observational data sets: Namely, that the guilty are not always punished, and the innocent are often harmed. In a rumbling voice of wrath, Simon -- by way of James -- takes exception to Annie's insistence that her husband (and her unborn child) should not have died in a car crash two years earlier. Who is Annie, Simon glowers, to impose such a shallow perspective on the grandeur of cosmic design?

The play could easily get lost in nebulous debates -- and it does have a tendency toward the didactic -- except for Schaffer's introduction of some specific plot points relating to previous lives. The play becomes an exploration of karma that crosses millennia, and this gives the work structure and shape, allowing the characters to traverse arcs that define and then re-define them.

What the play does not do, however, is rise into the rarefied world of spirits and leave the mundane behind. There are tantalizing glimpses -- we're told that Simon is not constrained by any of the bothersome traits of physical existence, such as time, and he seems in to be beyond identity, able to discuss his own past lives either outside of those lives or from the perspectives of those particular incarnations. And there are numerous nifty moments that allow us to glimpse happenings of a spiritual nature - some practical (a stack of books falling over; lights flickering and failing) and some metaphysical, as when we glimpse spirit bodies made of light or the shades of individuals who lived long ago.

What we keep returning to, though, are those same few narrative strands that are inescapably necessary for the purposes of creating identifiable dramatic structure; who knows but that it simply might not be possible to transcend the strictures of storytelling to soar into that higher realm. Shaffer does ask us the relevant questions, and he does tickle that most necessary of organs -- the "What If?" bone.

Goes has a hard job in that he has to portray -- channel, if you prefer -- a number of different, distinct characters. He accomplishes this job with ease, his voice, affect, and physical demeanor shifting from identity to identity, depending on who it is who's supposed to be at his body's helm.

Baltin, however, seems to have a hard time identifying and inhabiting his single character. His character is selfish, fearful, preoccupied with his own needs, handy with rationalizations; not an easy guy to get into the skin of. There is a moment at which all of those difficulties seem to melt away, though, and it's just the right moment: When Williston, stricken at the possibility that James might have pushed himself too hard and been hurt, falls at the younger man's side and tenderly looks after him. In that moment all of Williston's fears, jealousies, and betrayals make sense, and Baltin plays the moment beautifully.

Beatrice falls in the middle with a performance that ranges from nearly -- but not quite -- over the top to seriously underplayed. For a scientific sort, she's awfully swift to accept that Simon is, in fact, an entity completely apart from James; we don't get why. But we do get what has brought an otherwise rational woman across the country on a mission to make contact with her dear departed husband.

Director Myriam Cyr creates a mood of real-world commonplace at the beginning, and, by degrees, guides the play into its stranger and more eerie passages. Christopher Grace provides the "illusions," while Boris FX and Paul Ezzy create bespoke "special effects" for the production. Jonathan Carr is credited with "Projection Design." It's hard dot parse just where these areas overlap and where they diverge, but the sum total of these efforts makes for some gorgeous and spooky moments.

Janie Howland brings her talents to the set design, creating an environment that seems a little run down, and yet floats in the black box space like an oasis of highly specific reality in a formless void. John Malinowski, similarly, deploys a lighting scheme that fools the eye -- and the skeptical intellect -- into accepting this strange voyage to the beyond. Cat Stramer clothes the cast with costumes that allow us to relate to the characters without blocking us from relating to who we find them becoming (or who we learn they have once been).

Whether you believe, disbelieve, or want to believe, this play will spark your imagination and send chills up your spine.

"Simon Says" continues through March 14 at the BCA in Boston's South End. For tickets and more information, please visit

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.