Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
Ululating voices and the sounds of "zip, zop, zap" permeate the space as the cast of fifteen prepare emotionally and physically for their performance in Howard Richardson and William Berney's Dark of the Moon. It is a seemingly lawless scene, with contradictory costumes and a disregard for the assembling audience.
Order replaces disorder as the lights come up and the background sound effects by Duncan Cutler and Meg McCrossen, live percussion, hissing and deep breathing alike, rise in crescendo from offstage. Although lulling, they compete with the action developing onstage, but only for a moment as they blend into the scene.
Witchboy John (an impetuous and entertaining Noah Dunham) approaches Conjur Man and Conjur Woman with a weighty request: transform me into a human. He is motivated by love for Barbara Allen (angelic Sarah Hayes Donnell), a flaxen-haired, beautiful mortal that has captured his bewitched heart. The 7-feet tall Conjur beings by Puppet Designer Dakotah West are aesthetically arresting, each covered in elaborate mesh and veils and represented by four actors uttering dialogue in layered but unified tones. The request, rejected by Conjur man with stern warnings, is granted by Conjur woman with greater warnings still and a price: Barbara Allen must marry and remain faithful to him for a year, or he will return to his seething, growling, baying at the moon origin. To complicate matters, John is opposed in his desires by his former cohorts Dark Witch (Dennis X. Tseng) and Fair Witch (Renee Delio), as they skulk and trail his every move, willing him to fail and return to wickedness and loneliness. He doesn't fare any better with Barbara Allen's clan, a zealous, Christian bunch that are hip to his sorcery and aim to stamp it out, at least where their derided, wanton Barbara Allen is concerned.
Loosely based on an old European folk song "The Ballad of Barbara Allen", Richardson and Berney's interpretation of the character Barbara Allen is more invested in John than the oral tale is. John's love is unrequited in most versions, and it isn't until his death that her interest stirs. Here, Barbara Allen defends John fiercely, believes in him wholeheartedly, and is more sympathetic and victimized than her predecessor. Her persona, as exhibited by Donnell, is not quite as carnal, although there is much in the script to retain this part of her character such as public knowledge of her tendency to masturbate furiously, and her relationship with Marvin Hudgens (scrappy Matthew Hadley). The witches here are not only in practice of the dark arts, but a supernatural meld of animal, tempter, and performance artist, and their roles are tackled vigorously by Tseng (Thirsty Turtle Executive Director) and Delio. Decadence is not spared in this stylized production, and John's affinity for his past seems impossible to shake.
Under Ian Crawford's direction, the cast capitalizes on Chashama's stage, spilling unto the sides and challenging even the stage's steps to contain their enthusiasm while never missing a beat. Emily French uses a bare-bones, practical stage design with pots, pans, spoons and tools to create the illusion of the Appalachian mountain setting. In conjunction with lighting designer James Bedell, the stage is illuminated creatively with a string of light bulbs in mason jars. The in-your-face action is constant and loud with fun, folk sing-alongs, harmonies and even a Christian revival to solidify the valley's dogma.
John learns quickly that being human isn't a cakewalk, and Barbara Allen braves hostility to have a husband. But why? John could have enjoyed Barbara Allen's affections without committing to humanity, and one of his feet always remains rooted in witchhood, as he is reluctant to swear allegiance to Jesus and forbidden to step foot into a church. Also, his thirst for his perch near the moon and soaring with the eagles doesn't subside even after he acquires her in marriage. Barbara Allen, although urged by her family and friends to marry, never seems discontent without a husband. Why forsake her Christian upbringing without a second thought to marry a man who needs "time enough later to get salvation?" Both John and Barbara Allen try their best to serve two masters, but the script does not qualify their venture into this struggle.
Dark of the Moon is a tragic look at our dueling natures, and the opposition encountered when favoring one over the other. Less saccharine than Romeo and Juliet but emulating it in some respects, the suggestion that the support of your friends and family is needed in order to survive is implicit. Here, notions of of good and evil are examined, with some ironic results. "Ain't no changing a witch to a man", the script's translation of a leopard doesn't change its spots, is made true here, even if the decision is made by others with barbarity. The relevance that this piece has to what has been perceived as religious strong-arming in politics today is a little more than passing. But it is a thrilling ride to that conclusion.
Through July 7th. Chashama: 217 East 42nd street, NY, NY 10017. http://www.smarttix.com/ $15