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Katie Bender (second from left) frequently breaks the fourth wall by chatting up audience members during Instructions for a Séance. Courtesy Evan Woods

The set of Instructions for a Séance looks like an escape room, with seemingly random objects everywhere, and that is indeed part of the appeal of Amphibian Stage’s current production. In Katie Bender’s 70-minute play, theatergoers are invited to participate in an unfolding attempt to conjure the spirit of Harry Houdini. They’re seated in Bender’s living room as the playwright playing herself describes her avid interest in the life and death of the famed Hungarian-American escape artist.

Stage right near the back wall sits a large wooden box that Bender says was made to the exact specifications of one of the magician’s famous escape props as a means of enticing his spirit to make an appearance — Bender said that ghosts are drawn to familiar environments. From the start, our host broke the fourth wall, chatting us up as she built suspense over the looming paranormal encounter. (Fair warning: If you snag one of the front tables, you will become part of the play.)

Bender clearly has a knack for comedic writing and delivery. Her quips during the first half elicited steady chuckles, like when she drew similarities between herself and Charles Bukowski.

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“He’s probably a terrible role model,” she said. “I could never drink that much and write, but maybe I’m not committed enough — like, to drinking.”

The biggest laughs came around the midpoint, when the playwright/lead actor, after setting the scene for what was supposed to be a spectacular dialing into the afterworld, failed to compel Houdini’s spirit to so much as ring a bell as a sign of his presence. Deflated, Bender moaned and pressed her body against a black-and-white portrait of the magician before climbing up and lying on top of the large escapeable box in abject defeat.

Bender’s character is as witty as she is self-effacing, and the playwright used each moment of failure to great comedic effect, like when she mimicked Houdini’s voice with an alternating New York City and Boston accent that even she admitted was likely far from what the native Hungarian sounded like.

Bender’s lines meandered from thoughts on her personal, often unfulfilled life to Houdini and her research into séances, nearly every word united by the theme of escape, which often led to poignant moments like when she confided her own dreads about the ennui that characterizes capitalist America and the specter of the looming election, in which a criminally indicted sexual predator could once again win the presidency.

Watching a play about escaping reality may seem potentially reductive — audiences often attend the theater to escape reality, after all — but Bender’s exploration of the theme takes enough detours to keep the material from becoming morally didactic. The play indeed works as well as it does because of her acting, which requires her to assume several characters in addition to her own manic persona. One scene where she is possessed by a spirit leaves her reciting entranced lines rapidly. Another effective theatrical device is her use of the stage, which she covers several times over the course of an hour. She effortlessly draws the audience into her world, sometimes by walking up and down the center aisle of the stage and addressing lines to individual theatergoers.

During the first half, the play seesaws between Bender’s diatribes and efforts to pull off a successful séance, but the action picks up in the second half, where possessions, uncanny events, and even a disappearing act kick up the tension before settling down again.

Part dark comedy, part thriller, Instructions for a Séance takes abrupt turns that lead the audience into thinking the action is going in one direction even as the master illusionist (in this case, the playwright) has other plans in mind. Even though Houdini didn’t appear, the world’s greatest escape artist may well have enjoyed this homage to the art of misdirection and illusion.

 

Instructions for a Séance
Thru Sun at Amphibian Stage, 120 S Main St, FW. $17-42. 817- 923-3012.

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