Performance

A Tale of 17th-Century Witchcraft Staged in NYC’s Oldest House

The Visitation brought an immersive play on 17th-century witchcraft to the Wyckoff House, the oldest home in New York City.

The Wyckoff House before <em>The Visitation</em> (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The Wyckoff House before The Visitation (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

For three nights in early November, New York City’s oldest home was haunted by a 17th-century tale of witchcraft. After sunset, by lantern and candlelight, six actors prowled through the historic rooms of the Wyckoff House in Canarsie, Brooklyn, performing a play inspired by a true case of demonic influence. Called The Visitation, it was created by Witness, a new immersive theater company.

The Wyckoff House before <em>The Visitation</em> (courtesy Witness)
The Wyckoff House before The Visitation (courtesy Witness)

I attended one of the performances staged between November 3 and 5; like each of the roughly 40 audience members, I only witnessed a fragment of the story. As the family in this farmhouse, along with two visiting priests, examined the afflictions that kept their daughter bedridden, other conflicts about faith, relationships, and possession emerged. Audience members could decide whom to follow, discovering perhaps that the father may be poisoning the young woman and causing her fits (played with Exorcist-like contortions by Rae Haas), or that the younger priest (an unnervingly dogmatic Brian Lore Evans) may be the most dangerous, with the absolute conviction of his belief in the devil’s presence. As directed by Drew Gregory, it all reached a climactic pitch, as each character chose whether to stay in this house of torment.

“Through this evening, as the visiting priests and family discover things about each other’s motives and secrets, the audience’s experience is mirroring that of the characters,” Michael Bontatibus, playwright for The Visitation, told Hyperallergic. “As an audience member, your perception of the narrative — of who is telling the truth and who is lying, who the good guys and bad guys are, and whether or not there’s any legitimacy to the supernatural elements — is shaped only by what you witness firsthand, what you choose to believe from others, and your own biases. None of which are reliable.”

Scenes from <em>The Visitation</em> (courtesy Witness)
Scenes from The Visitation (courtesy Witness)

The Visitation was set in 1682, a time when the Wyckoff House would have been standing in colonial New York. Brooklyn has now developed around the once rural structure, which operates as the Wyckoff House Museum. It was expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, and light pollution from the garages and streets seeps through the windows; still, that tactile link to the 17th century remains.

“The space is wonderfully atmospheric — there’s a great old-house smell, slightly creaky wooden floors,” Bontatibus stated. “The field is lined with trees that have started shedding their leaves, so you have these crunchy autumn leaves everywhere, which for one reason or another is what everyone thinks of when they think of 1600s witchcraft stories.”

As Bontatibus explained, the Wyckoff House, and its director Melissa Branfman, were enthusiastic about the after-hours project. “I thought it was going to take a lot of convincing, but they were into the idea of an immersive play pretty much from the beginning,” Bontatibus said. There is talk of restaging The Visitation, although discussions are still developing.

The Wyckoff House before <em>The Visitation</em> (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The Wyckoff House before The Visitation (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Visitation joins other recent initiatives at New York City historic houses to experiment with alternative programming. The Merchant’s House annually holds a Victorian funeral reenactment, the Morris–Jumel Mansion hosts contemporary art and theater in its rooms, and the Lefferts Historic House in Prospect Park has also engaged with unconventional art installations. Historic houses can be perceived as static — and indeed it’s that preservation in time that makes them important — yet these kinds of interventions bring in new visitors and foster a deeper community relationship.

All of the fellow audience members I talked to following the performance were visiting the Wyckoff House for the first time, which can be a bit of a journey to reach on public transportation. As Bontatibus affirmed, “A lot of people blinked at the location — like, ‘You chose where to put up this show?’ — then once they got to the Wyckoff House were like, ‘Oh, I get it now.'”

The Wyckoff House before <em>The Visitation</em> (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The Wyckoff House before The Visitation (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Visitation was November 3 to 5 at the Wyckoff House Museum (5816 Clarendon Road, Canarsie, Brooklyn).

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