By James Bartholomew
“Empath” is a show brimming with emotions, but most of them are felt by its writer and performer, David Sauvage. That’s because Mr. Sauvage is an empath, someone with the paranormal ability to read and experience the emotions of other people. Through a series of personal stories and audience readings, Mr. Sauvage demonstrates his psychic powers in a one‑of‑a‑kind piece that’s part confession, part circus act.
To hear him tell it, no one was more shocked and skeptical of Mr. Sauvage’s psychic awakening than the empath himself. After struggling to make ends meet as a filmmaker in New York, Mr. Sauvage was referred to a psychic who, though vague, confirmed the young artist’s latent supernatural talents. Although hesitant to believe the prophetic reading, Mr. Sauvage soon found himself receiving visions and premonitions pertaining to the lives of strangers and passersby he encountered. Quite accidently, Mr. Sauvage realized that he knows intimate details about the lives of people he has never met, and could even conjure images and memories from their past. Left with no other explanation for his bizarre gift, Mr. Sauvage finally accepted that he is a psychic, and resolved to embrace his powers in full.
After years of honing his craft with street readings and psychotropic drugs, Mr. Sauvage has developed a unique brand of mentalism that focuses on the emotions of his querents. During his readings, Mr. Sauvage twists and convulses as he details the feelings of his volunteers, their raw emotions filtering through him. They seem to burst out of him as though he were possessed. He pounds his fists against his skull when he feels sadness or frustration, and shakes abruptly when he feels anxiety or nervousness. As he digs deeper into the emotional core of his subjects, Mr. Sauvage attempts to reveal hidden truths and offer helpful suggestions to guide the querent in some way.
The show itself is divided into two parts: one in which Mr. Sauvage tells the story of how he discovered his bizarre powers, and one in which he demonstrates his gift to the audience. And while the allure of the Mr. Sauvage’s bold claims of emotional telepathy is captivating, it’s his understated charisma that makes “Empath” truly enthralling.
Open about his own anxieties and perpetual self‑doubt, Mr. Sauvage becomes surprisingly vulnerable for a spiritual guide. Even during his readings, he readily admits that his visions are not always perfect, and encourages his participants to correct his inaccuracies. He is personable and endearingly relatable throughout, and his humor and warmth bring levity to the more intimidating aspects of his declared powers. “Empath” feels less about psychic powers than about the man who purports to live with them. It is an incredible yet charming story of self‑discovery.
Of course, regardless of his amiability, there’s a certain amount of skepticism worth leveling at Mr. Sauvage over his impressive claims. Entertaining though his readings are, his visions aren’t particularly substantive or revelatory. Although he denies using cold reading techniques, many of his observations feel general and somewhat obvious, the product of social acuity rather than some supernatural font of empathy. Occasionally, his more specific visions prove surprisingly correct, a feat that would seem uncanny if not for the nearly equal number of misses that bring his accuracy down to around 50/50.
Thankfully, “Empath”’s success doesn’t rest solely on the believability of the titular psychic. As Mr. Sauvage puts it, he’s “way more interested in transparency than accuracy,” and while some of his querents admitted to inaccuracies in their readings, all three eagerly expressed appreciation for their empathic experience. Mr. Sauvage’s claims are contentious, but it’s hard to deny that he offers his querents a chance to reexamine themselves in new and meaningful ways. Even for the rest of the audience, the physicality of his readings makes for an entrancing spectacle. Skeptics likely won’t leave the theatre believing in divination, but for those with an interest in the supernatural, “Empath” is a must‑see.
Nov. 29 – Dec. 9, 2018
Performed by David Sauvage
Directed by Catie Davis
Photo: Mark Abramson
357 W 36th St.
New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.