By Sarah Downs

You gotta wonder what was in the water in Upstate New York in the mid-19th century.  Between Utopianism in Oneida and Mormonism in Palmyra, clearly Upstate was the place to be for finding religion.  And then there are the Fox sisters.  Kate, with her sisters Leah and Margaretta, from humble Hydesville, ‘accidentally’ created a spiritualist movement, rising to fame speaking to the deceased.  In The Fabulist Fox Sister, Kate Fox (Michael Conley) tells us how a moment’s inspiration became a lifelong career.  This is Kate’s last performance and she is ready to spill the beans.

The show is an absolute delight.  Conley is a natural born storyteller.  Gloria Swanson meets Madame Arcati meets Dorothy Parker, Kate is a little camp, a little colloquial and a lot of fun.  She is also seditiously insightful, dropping little gems of truth wrapped in humor throughout.  Talking about the development of her career as a medium, and the movement that grew from it, she says  “Faith is just imagination given too much rope.”  Ain’t it the truth?

Her career as a medium exemplifies the power of a popular lie (or was it?)  An oft-repeated, compelling lie can trump the truth, if people become emotionally attached to that lie.  Indeed for the families grieving over the loss of loved ones, the idea that they could communicate with them from beyond the grave had (and continues to have) powerful appeal.

What irony that it was a lie that gave Kate and her sisters a life of freedom denied most women.  Kate toured the country, séancing like a Boss, even though it was illegal at that time for women to speak in public.  It is interesting to ponder the impact of a woman striking out on her own, when women’s choices consisted of marriage or spinsterhood.  The world of spiritualism offered a unique cultural loophole, in which Kate could manifest her ambition, earn her own money and gain independence, despite being female.
 Luke Bateman‘s score fits seamlessly with the material.  A little Flanders and Swan, a little classic musical theater, it is approachable, conversational and fun.  From the opening number, “Poppin my Toes” Bateman’s music sets a tone of lightheartedness.  With his lilting tone of voice and clear intonation, Conley demonstrates similar musicality.  He commands his character with delightful nonchalance.  Conley’s writing has a great rhythm and balance – structure, puns, narrative, repetitions – the consistency is key.
The Fabulist Fox Sister is funny and addictive, bubbling with humor and rooted in real feeling.  For all its humor you see the glimmers of vulnerability beneath.  At heart, under the effortless humor and sarcasm, Kate’s story is of a person who wandered from the truth and was then trapped in her own lie.  It’s lonely at the center.  As the show came to a close I had a little lump in my throat.  I really like this woman and want to hear more.

The Fabulist Fox Sister, written and performed by Michael Conley; music by Luke Bateman.

Presented on Tuesday, September 26 and Friday, September 29, both at 9:30 PM, at The Green Room 42 (570 Tenth Avenue at 42nd Street, on the 4th Floor of Yotel).   Cover charge $25-$45. A livestream option is available for $20.