Psychic Self Defense Review. A Curtain Raiser for the Ages

“Psychic Self Defense” – gorgeous, impish and enveloping — had long ended before I understood the title, although the show itself remained ineffable. To be clear, I never doubted it was a work of theater. True, it has few of the oft-quoted Aristotelian elements of drama – no discernible plot, or characters, nor (as Aristotle put it) thought or diction. There are fewer than a dozen words uttered over the course of an hour.  But it has an abundance of one element that has defined the legitimate stage for hundreds of years: Theater curtains. The show is alive with a huge variety of theater curtains –  proscenium curtains, masking curtains, backdrops; drapes of (what looked like) tinsel, gold lamé or velour; plastic, felt, cardboard or wool — curtains always in motion. In one scene alone, one theater curtain opened to reveal a smaller one, which opened to a still smaller one, and then a smaller one, etc….until we saw a flat curtain with two holes in it, each just large enough for a hand ringing a bell – which were each then replaced by a curious eye.

There are more than just theater curtains in “Psychic Self Defense.” There are costumed creatures, such as a huge but emaciated wedding cake (or perhaps it’s a tassel)  and a human-sized pink gumby (or maybe it’s a humongous human tongue.)

Three oval objects that look like shrunken heads suddenly pop down on cords from the rafters. Ghost-like creatures gather into paisley formations in video projections.  The overall effect is that of  an abstract sculpture set in motion, or a three dimensional screen saver,  or an ever-changing landscape of the imagination. It’s a dance of animated inanimate objects, accompanied by a score of eerie long notes, beeps and squeaks, some the kind of sounds that happen when you scratch a record or torture a balloon (although oddly appealing.) It’s such an effective hallucination that I was actually surprised when six human beings took a bow at the curtain call, (one still dressed head to toe in that pink tongue outfit), and that didn’t include the musicians; this is one labor-intensive dream.

“Psychic Self Defense” is a work of puppetry. It was reportedly conceived by Normandy Sherwood when she was isolated during the pandemic to provide a needed experience of beauty and mystery. It exists, in other words, not to teach us how to keep the supernatural at bay, or repel intrusive ghosts, vampires or fortune tellers (which was what the 1930s book with the same title tried to do), but as a step toward repairing our psyches – tickling our spirits.  And for me it did. I can’t say I never drifted, but the show seemed designed to encourage us to do so; to promote our own reverie. 

Psychic Self Defense
HERE through September 30
Running time: 60 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $10 – $105
Written, designed, and directed by Normandy Sherwood. 
Composition and sound design by Craig Flanagin
Scenic and rigging design by Daniel Allen Nelson
Curtain and costume design and construction by Normandy Sherwood
Lighting design by Christina Tan
Performed by  Ean Sheehy, Nikki Calonge, Daniel Allen Nelson, Kate Brehm, Adrienne Swan, and Elyse Durand with musicians Craig Flanagin and Normandy Sherwood.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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