Misunderstood: One Witch’s Story

Vana O’Brien in Broomstick. Photo by Owen Carey

“BROOMSTICK,” A PLAY ABOUT A WITCH WITH AN IDENTITY CRISIS COMES TO ARTISTS REPERTORY THEATER

The lights come up on a witch’s cottage complete with a wall o’ potions and a number of other eccentric, dusty knickknacks, all backed by what looks like the strands of a giant fraying wicker chair. Basically, the kind of witch’s manor you might come across in an episode of True Detective. With a silky Southern voice and an indelible stage presence, Artists Rep veteran Vana O’Brien’s haunts the set in a way that can make you more at ease than you’d care to be, but also hints at an underlying danger. She addresses the audience like a second character, which is important, because this is in every sense, a one-woman show, performed in nearly nonstop monologue.

O"brien as the Witch. Photo by Owen Carey

O”brien as the Witch. Photo by Owen Carey

John Biguenet’s script is a meditation on the gray areas that lie between what is considered good and evil, and at what point one concedes to one path or another. If you read the title correctly and weren’t having any costume mask malfunctions (the play opened on Halloween), you’d have every reason to believe this is, indeed, a play about a witch.

The woman in question, however, seems less convinced.

Sure, she might have murdered a child or two who stumbled upon her lair, but she’d have you know, if any such incidents truly occurred, there was a perfectly good reason to do so. And whatever small crimes against morality, she’ll be quick to tell, pale in comparison to the greater evils those children ran into the forest to escape. Heartbreak, abuse, and racial violence permeate the Witch’s stories.

Your enjoyment of the play will most likely be contingent on one key preference: whether or not you enjoy rhyming. If, like me, you get this uncanny urge to twitch uncontrollably whenever you hear one, this one might be an uncomfortable sit. If not, you may enjoy the continuously lilting verse:

“…among the sinners simmering the in vats / of bubbling oil, my ears gnawed off by rats…”

“…he was some talker, wasn’t he my pa? / pour whiskey in to lubricate his jaw…”

“…out would flood so many words you’d think / the dictionary’d gone and sprung a leak…”

Given the fairy-tale motif, it would be unfair to deprive playwright Biguenet of this handy device. And it does succeed, initially, in bringing the audience into his fantasy world. But, beyond putting an almost punitive pressure on O’Brien’s ability to hit every mark (which she amazingly makes look easy), the device ultimately served to take me out of the moment again and again. Instead of being engaged, I was always busy waiting for the next rhyme to drop.

“I could have left you on that aimless path / but no, I took you in and drew a bath…”

“She’s the thinnest girl you’ll ever meet / I try to fatten her, but she won’t eat…”

“…that ain’t much difference, when you stop to think / between pig and boy: both squeal, both stink…”

Okay, I’ve made my point. Everything rhymed.

Beyond this slight, personal annoyance, which most likely thrills others, my only major sticking point was that there seemed to be a lot of missed opportunities to interact with the set, which in addition to jars of all different colored concoctions, included a hat and cloak hung in the wicker, and yes, a broom laid against a pillar. In general there was less wonder and surprise than you might expect from a story so grounded in fantasy.

I speak more on behalf of the several costumed hand-held children who were no-doubt forced to accompany their parents to the theater on Halloween. I empathized. Not to get into specifics, but it was very similar to one of several scenes from this reporter’s childhood. And look, we all know that even if they went trick-or-treating beforehand, the 7:30 show time was going to put these kids down some candy.

So when the witch finally grabbed an armful of jars and began to mix them on the table, I couldn’t help but think these young people were owed, at the very least, some kind of small explosion. But the ingredients were stirred, and the jars were innocuously returned to their places on the shelf.

Again, the lack of breaks in the monologue to introduce any other elements, seemed to put such a strain on the lead that it’s hard to imagine anyone but an expert thespian handling the role. Luckily, Artists Rep has one in O’Brien who executed the piece in the exact time listed on the program and finished by bringing the crowd to its feet.

I’ll try to resist my urge to add a pithy rhyme of my own here, and simply say that—if not for these challenges in the script—this was a well-executed production from a high-caliber playhouse and director Gemma Whelan. Recommended if you need a little help getting into the season and enjoy the prospect of a production with more rhymes than a Nas show. If not / you might like to give a second thought. Eh? Eh…? Eh…

“Broomstick” runs until November 22nd. See the link below for times and ticket information.




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