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In a tiny space above a magic shop, Susan Kang and Barry Taylor provide a home for adventurous theatergoersand the dead.
With bugged eyes and flailing arms, Ghost Mistress Suzanne assails the audience with her “How I Found My Spirit Guide” story: As a young clairvoyant, Suzie was concerned that she was getting up in age and still hadn’t met her metaphysical match, even though her mother and sister had both known theirs since they were much younger than she. A presence finally came to her after the yard-sale purchase of a poetry book and a baby doll. But the newly acquired items came with a dire warning: The girl who had owned them was murderedand if the murder was anything like Suzanne’s telling, it was brutal and noisyand a curse would follow whoever possesses them. Suzanne’s story is finished, and now she’d like to show you the doll. But…the doll…Where’s the doll?
Before you can say “They’re heeere,” a toy clown is bashing his cymbals, drawers are opening and closing, and a cabinet door flies open to reveal one rough-looking, bloody doll. The lights go out and…Oh God, what was that running across my lap?
Welcome to Psychic Ghost Theatre.
The venue is smallan audience of 25 is the limit in the space upstairs from Barry’s Magic Shop in Wheaton, Md.and dinner-party-intimate. Which means that for the timid, there’s no place to hide. As all hell breaks loose, you hear the scream of the woman at the end of the row, sense the startled jump of the guy sitting at your back, and feel the clamminess of your next-seat neighbor’s hand.
Conceived, developed, and performed by Susan Kang (aka Ghost Mistress Suzanne) and her partner, Barry Taylor (aka Ghost Host Barry), the two-hour performance is part haunted house and part magic show, with a generous dose of stand-up sprinkled throughout.
“We wanted to do a magic show which was so different, that had never been done before,” Kang says. “I’ve always loved the element of the supernatural, of suspense, and I wanted people to feel as if they’re in it. We want to be fun, exciting, thrilling, beautifulall the emotions.”
The evening starts off cheerily enough, with Taylor and Kang already into their performance characters as you walk in the door: Ghost Host Barry takes your coat while Ghost Mistress Suzanne offers you a drink; then you settle into your cushy chair and wait to be dazzled. Because of the bright lights and living-room atmosphere, the show feels much like a family-gathering skit your geeky teenage cousin might put onafter all, this guy just hung your jacketbut the slickness with which Taylor works through the standard magician’s bag of tricks, as well as his relaxed stage presence, project a professional air.
Most of Taylor’s act is thick with “Take my wifeplease”-type humor, but he also adds short but sweet there’s-wonder-all-around-us monologues during the more delicate tricks, such as making a little silver cube dance gracefully in the air. “I put a lot of philosophy into the presentations of the tricks, things that people can relate to, so in some ways [the show] is romanticized. It makes it more interesting,” says Taylor, who wrote the script for everything but the final séance portion of the showwhen the toys come out to have a little fun.
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The second segment of the show centers on Taylor and Kang’s spirit cabinet (not a physical cabinet but a piece of floor space large enough for about three people, surrounded by a curtain), a re-creation of a 19th-century device built to aid mediums in summoning spirits. Kang is the medium and the presumable force behind this demonstration, even though she spends the entire time secured to a chairthis being an 18-and-over show, you can imagine the schtick that takes place as two male volunteers tie her upbehind the cabinet’s black curtain. She falls into a trance and the invited ghosts wreak some mild havoc, throwing around pie plates, jangling a tambourine, and tossing a garbage pail over the head of an audience member who dares to sit in the cabinet for a spell; after each occurrence, the curtain is pulled back to reveal Kang still tied securely to the chair, and the wall behind the cabinet is pounded to prove that it contains no trapdoorsand, as Taylor adds, “No midgets!”
Created by the Davenport Brothers, a pair of mediums who were among the first stage performers to conjure supernatural powers, and soon co-opted by Houdini, who sought to discredit the early-20th-century vogue for spiritualism, the spirit cabinet is classic stage magic. Yet, Kang says, “not that many people do it. It took me years to develop. We’ve been doing it for about 10 years, and we think it’s perfect.” One of the duo’s spirit-cabinet feats involves an audience member’s jacket, which Taylor throws over the curtain: When the curtain is pulled back a second latersure enoughKang is wearing it.
“[The last show,] this woman, I thought she was going to beat me!” Kang says. “She said, ‘You’re going to tell me how that jacket’s done,’ and I said, ‘I’d have to kill you!’ I’ve had people offer me $500 for the information. Hopefully, we [seem to do] the impossible behind that spirit cabinet.”
But it’s the third part of the evening, the séance, that allows Kang to take center stage. (Taylor leaves the room during this segment, allegedly because of a bad experience with previously summoned spirits.) Kang exercises her acting chops as she progresses from trying to contact her spirit guide with a Ouija board (only the Parker Bros. version will do) to reacting with horror as a hammer-and-bell contraption designed to help ghosts communicate begins sounding its shiver-inducing clangs. (Even here, a bit of humor is injected into the script: When Kang asks the spirits, “You’re not going to hurt us, are you?” the bell rings three timesthe ghostly code for “Not sure.”)
As for taking a run-of-the-mill séance routine and turning it into a Chucky movie, the idea was all Kang’s. “I don’t think there’s anything like this out there, where you feel you’re ‘in the movie,’” Kang says. “We get a very educated group, so we [asked], ‘What would scare an intelligent person?’ If I came out here with an ax and a hockey mask, they would laugh. So I thought: dolls!”
As cheesy as it may sound, the approach works: When Kang asks an older gentleman to bring her the doll after it makes its first appearance, he shakes his head as his expression says, There’s no way I’m touching that thing.
Taylor, 47, and Kang, 45, were high school sweethearts who met when Kang signed up for an alternative-education magic class taught by Taylor at Northwood High School in Silver Spring. “I told my friends, ‘There’s this beautiful girl who’s in my class. I have to find out who she is,’” Taylor says. A newcomer to magic at the timeshe was only 16Kang proved to be a natural. “She’s great; she’s better than I am,” Taylor admits. “She’s a wonderful performer, and she’s so good with people and the way she interacts. It’s just something you can’t learn. It’s something you have, and she’s got it.”
Psychic Ghost Theatre has been running for nearly three years, offering local theatergoers an alternative to the endless supply of Shakespeare stagings and the endless run of Shear Madness. And, the pair says, some of the audience members start to look familiar: “We get a lot of people coming back now because they want to bring someone else,” Taylor says. “They want others to see and experience it.”
Because the show is one of the few of its kind in the country and has received notices in such far-reaching publications as American Airlines’ in-flight magazine (which named Psychic Ghost Theatre one of the top 10 magic shows in the United States) and the Washington Post, as well as AOL’s Digital City Washington, audience members are not limited to locals. “We had a couple who planned their vacation to come here from Japan,” Taylor says. “They found out [about us] on the Net.”
Although Taylor and Kang normally run performances of Psychic Ghost Theatre year-round, their last show of this season will be Dec. 31. (They expect to return to a regular schedule in March.) Eventually, Taylor says, they’d like to take their act on the road: “What I’d like to do is get into a production where we’re maybe doing a month’s run in a bigger theater, doing a mix of magic and art, different things.”
For the long run, though, they are happy with their anomalous Georgia Avenue location. “The intimacy is nice. People get to see these illusions and the effects right there, in front of them. It’s not way up on a stage somewhere,” Taylor says. Audience member Steve Harviththe brave soul who sat in the spirit cabinetagrees: “I thought it was terrific. You never get to see magic up close like that.” (And if that doesn’t impress you, you can get a different kind of eyeful next door at Wheaton’s finest porn shop.)
Both Taylor and Kang admit that performing is exhausting, but they say that each audience’s reaction makes it worth the effort. “Seeing people enjoying themselves, having fun and being amazedthat’s the thrill for us,” Taylor says. “It just makes us feel great!” Taylor even allows the audience members some of the limelight, arranging a card trick to make one volunteer look like an accomplished mentalist. “I don’t know how you did that,” Taylor says graciously. “But keep it a secret. Because when you keep the secret, the magic lives forever.” CP