By Michael Martin
How do you make a hit? Give your audience something familiar, yes, but with enough of a spin to make them feel that leaving the house, finding a sitter and a place to park, is worth all the trouble. Two shows now running excel at crowd-pleasing craftsmanship.
With Broomstick John Biguenet, the most reliably skilled playwright premiering work in New Orleans, has set himself an interesting enough challenge: Take a couple handfuls of fables and fairy tales featuring witches and reweave them into one narrative. The product should feel as if the disparate stories were all episodes in the long life of the same crone.
Done well, as this is, it’s a show that ought to have legs in regional theater. The work is ppropriate for the autumn, one of the theatre’s busy periods. It is relatively inexpensive to produce, (depending on how all-in the producer goes on the witch’s cabin). Crucially, the play provides a great showcase for any locally beloved actress of a certain age. Broomstick is the kind of script for which the phrase tour de force was invented.
Liann Pattison comes within a hair’s-breadth of tour de force, only slightly hampered by the sing-song that Biguenet’s tight rhyming couplets occasionally pull her into. Enhanced by Cecile Casey Covert’s transformative costuming (a crone’s traditional ragamuffin finery), her performance is full of command, detail, and variety. Always purposefully so; Pattison never appears to move, simply to vary the picture. Amy Holtcamp’s subtle direction is an enormous help, in both staging and tone. It’s not easy to keep a solo show dynamic without resorting to histrionics. Although I’m usually a fan of actors who go over the top, these yarns are lurid enough. Pattison mostly underplays, creating a sense of fireside intimacy, and needs only to allow enough silence and space for a few crucial moments to land with full impact. However, it was opening night; an actress of such control will have relaxed a bit by now.
Biguenet has resisted, I think smartly, the easy revisionist temptation to make his Überwitch sympathetic and politically correct. Despite some ambiguity about her motives, she ends as her models in the original tales started: Evil. Steeped in self-justification rather than misunderstood, and all the better (and funnier, and scarier) for it.
Yet, it’s a shame that the playwright didn’t find some other through line. Although nicely rethought and individually compelling, the episodes remain just that, episodes. They rarely inform one another and never adding up to a coherent biography. Biguenet’s rhyme scheme does go a long way toward making them all of a piece, but not all the way. By the conclusion they seem to outright contradict each other, as if the witch of one tale couldn’t possibly be the witch of the next. (One segment, concerning three black men who die for stealing a pie is particularly jarring.) With no conclusion of its own reached, Broomstick ends on a tired ‘I’ll see you in your nightmares, my pretties,’ Crypt Keeper farewell.
What lifts the evening above the very good into the memorable is David Raphel’s se. The setting is believably lived, in but fantastically ominous. It’s the most evocative I’ve seen since, well, David Raphel’s set for Rivertown Theatre’s Young Frankenstein. Under Joan Long’s Halloween lighting, moody without being wearying to the eyes, the witch’s dilapidated cabin seems capable of telling her tale by itself. I haven’t recently seen work by all of our major designers, but I’d be surprised if any provide a stronger sense of place than Raphel.
There’s eerie shadowplay in the witch’s mirror, too, and a sound design by Mike Harkins as assured as Long’s work. This entire production is high craftsmanship. I can’t wait for Southern Rep to have a own home again.