According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Dark of the Moon

Rarely professionally staged, Dark of the Moon—a mythical story of witches and farmers set in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina—enjoyed a run on Broadway in the 1940s and has since lived on mainly in high school, college and community theaters. Thirsty Turtle Production’s take on this classically problematic play conjures up a cohesive and atmospheric look at the perils of prejudice and unquestioning adherence to religious dogma.

Reviewed by Ilena George

A Southern Gothic fairy tale with a dark side worthy of a Shirley Jackson story, Dark of the Moon offers a kind of story-telling that feels much larger and more epic than the space it's housed in might suggest. Based loosely on the 17th century folk song "The Ballad of Barbara Allen," Dark of the Moon presents a Romeo and Juliet-esque story about a woman and a witch-boy who fall in love and pursue a doomed relationship that both humans and witches oppose. John the witch-boy (Noah Dunham) makes a deal with Conjur Woman, an old woman with magical powers, who agrees to make him human for one year with the stipulation that he may remain human only if the beautiful (and loosely moralled) Barbara Allen (Sarah Hayes Donnell) stays faithful to him for one year. John must learn to live like a man—chopping wood, caring for his wife—but is forbidden to enter a church, which will almost instantly cast suspicion on him in the highly religious community he attempts to penetrate.

Atmospherically, the production uses simple sound and lighting tricks to great effect, from a string of lightbulbs in mason jars during a lightning and thunder-filled barn dance to rain sticks and an eerie plinking percussion during the scenes with Conjur Man and Woman. Hands down the best new take on the play was the decision to represent Conjur Man and Conjur Woman with seven foot tall wire and cloth puppets, helmed by four actors apiece. Appearing in the first scene of the play, their otherworldliness and mythic proportions set the tone for what followed.

Some other innovations worked less well: at the beginning of the second act, when John's witchly (and wicked) compatriots draw him out to cavort with them, the heavy black drapery blocking the light from chashama's 42nd street-facing windows was pulled back and the goings-on inside theater were visible to passers-by. A risky and gutsy move, to be sure, but one that detracted from the show for its "You're on Candid Camera" prankiness.

Crawford's direction and the strong cast of vivid characters nimbly avoid many of the play's pitfalls. The townspeople as a whole, and in particular the terrifically smarmy Preacher Haggler (Jake Thomas), optimistic and flirtatious Ms. Metcalf (Jessica Howell) and Barbara Allen’s bellicose jilted lover Marvin Hudgens (Matthew Hadley), take what could have been two-dimensional characters and instead provide a chilling portrait of how fear, prejudice, and the hive mentality can push an otherwise vibrant community into terrible acts. The witches provide creepiness during the first act, but the humans dish it out in the second with the evocative and unsettling scene where Barbara Allen gives birth and the religious revival where the town sanctifies rape in the name of God.

One spot where the play does occasionally falter is with the overabundance of rural, folk-speech that easily tips over into ridiculousness. Between the dozens of uses of "I reckon" to the many "that don't make no never mind," as well as references to stereotypically hick practices—drinking moonshine made from corn, eating squirrel meat and so forth—the play becomes, at times, difficult to take seriously. This isn’t helped by the play’s odd pacing, where scenes with fighting, singing and magic will be interspersed with scenes that barely further the plot. But the strength of the two leads—who are completely riveting to watch—the often joyous (if sometimes oddly timed) musical interludes of folksy songs, spirituals and ballads combined with the unexpectedly thought-provoking themes and images that give the play life, make Dark of the Moon worth taking a chance on.

Dark of the Moon
By Howard Richardson and William Berney
Directed and adapted by Ian Crawford
Collective P.A.S.T. @ chashama (217 East 42nd Street)
June 15th through July 7th
Tickets ($15): or 212-279-4200


Anaka Layne said...

I saw this play performed in a High School One Act Play competition and I have to say that I thought it was very inapropriate. Families take their young children to see older siblings perform at the competition and in the process expose their children to terrible rape scenes. I literally had to watch Hundges thrust at Barbara Allen...and watch the dark and fair witches touch tongues on stage. I thought this was too vulgar for a High School performance and should be taken off the approved plays list.

Anonymous said...

When my school did this play, the congregation formed a tight circle around Barbara and Marvin during the rape scene, so what was happening had to be inferred. The witches were sinuous but never overtly sexual. It's not really necessary to be that literal in order to get the point across that witches don't "pay no mind" to human rules of proper conduct! However, I agree that this is not a play for kids.

Anonymous said...

I saw a production of Dark of the Moon in an off-off Broadway theater affiliated perhaps with NYU in 1970. I have not been able to find any information about this production but I remember Rue McClanahan and Harvey Keitel were in the case. The memorable feature of the production was that, as was common in the 1960's - 1970's, all the witches performed completely in the nude. They slithered around trees on stage in a minimalist set.

Anonymous said...

Well my high school is doing this play for one act this year, and what my school has come to notice is that this play is not about rape or anything. Granted it can be taken that way, but we are not going that direction with it. The only way a play is going to be taken to that kind of extreme is if the director wants it that way, and if there is a high school director who is willing to go that far just for a competitive little sport, then they need to be replaced by a true director.