Thursday, October 5, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 37, A Review: "Dark of the Moon" (Sherman Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco
Who is the central figure of Howard Richardson and William Berney's moody, controversial character piece "Dark of the Moon?"
Is it the beautiful Barbara Allen, the young woman who pleasures herself with a handsome stranger who impregnates her with a baby that isn't human? Is it John, the mysterious "witch boy" turned human who marries Barbara but is forbidden to step foot in a church? Or is it the conjurers and the witches of the night who taunt John and predict eventual doom for his "Romeo and Juliet" love story with Barbara.

In director Robin Frome's thrilling, hypnotic production, pretty much anyone who takes center stage during "Dark of the Moon's" eerie story telling becomes the central focus of this rarely performed drama set in the Appalachian Mountains during the 1930's. There's love making in the moonlight, dancing and singing, hell and damnation church revivals, spells and witchcraft, witch babies burning in the fire, severed hands with wedding rings, fights and weddings, sin and  masturbation, wicked transformations, death and destruction.

All of this is played out in appropriate fashion by Frome who gives pulse and insight to the proceedings, to the point, where even the most discerning of theatregoers become true believers of everything that's conjured up on the Sherman Playhouse stage. Frome also derives suitable angst, tension, wit, spirit, atmosphere and significance from the play script by always knowing what buttons to push, what and who to taunt and play with, how to thrust the action forward seamlessly and how to balance the two decidedly different worlds of the "Dark of the Moon" story.

This "Dark of the Moon" fascinates, intrigues and excites. It is one of the best performed dramas of the 2017 theater season and one that you'll be talking about long after the night ends and you're driving home ready to grab that glass of wine, whip up a snack or two and chat intelligently about your newfound theater experience.

Trust me, you'll be up for hours conversing about this one.

Directorially speaking, Frome is the ideal choice to stage "Dark of the Moon." In the hands of someone less experienced, the two-act play would probably die a slow death and bore the audience to death within minutes. At Sherman Playhouse, Frome brings decades of experience to the theater as both director and actor. He understands the mechanics and stagecraft of mounting a two-act drama. He takes chances. He knows how an actor moves, thinks, speaks and improvises. He knows how to cast a production with actors who fully grasp his stage logistics and interpretation. He also knows how to surround himself with an exceptional design team who make his productions snap, crackle or pop. Or simply prompt one to say, "Bravo, Mr. Frome."

Lisa Bonelli's impeccably designed costuming superbly reflects the attitude and personality of the Appalachian characters and the supernatural ones who wear her flawless, creative designs. Frome's set design, paired with Krisby Kreho's tree design and construction intuitively reflects the witches' mountain lair and the surrounding town that lies below. Al Chiappetta's lighting design and David White's sound design also moodily complements the strange happenings that permeate "Dark of the Moon."

It's surely not the time for a revival of "Hello, Dolly!" but if Frome were ever to direct it, he might stage it underwater or on the moon and get flying colors every step of the way. 

John Squires as the "witch boy" has the right blend of vitality, compassion, restlessness and bruising dynamism necessary for the pivotal role of John. His transformation from the supernatural to the human world is full of dynamic surprise and conviction. As is his temptation to fly or not fly again with the witches who were once or could still be his playmates of the night.
The actual transformation from "witch boy" to John is one of the play's highlights. Squires amazes as he slowly changes from creature of the night into a human. It's a process that fascinates from every twist and turn and then, back again.

Kate Morris' Barbara Allen is poignant, sexy, moody, thoughtful and sometimes frightening as she finds herself punished by family and townsfolk for failing to conform to their hypocritical ways and abandon her desires for a man not of her world. She also brings a shadowy mix of boldness and curiosity to the part, which works wonderfully well throughout the production.

Michael Wright's Preacher Haggler has the force, the hypocrisy and the smarminess the part calls for. He has a wonderful stage presence and when his big church revival moment comes in Act II, he is a holier-than-thou Christian force to be reckoned with. He's the real deal, make no mistake about it.
Katherine Almquist is completely believable as Conjur Woman. She is a bewitching presence who clearly knows how to cast a spell or two.

The Fair Witch and the Dark Witch, played respectively by Phair Elizabeth Haldin and Jessica Gleason, are devious, snarky, alluring, blatant, corrupt and erotic. Both actresses are perfectly in sync with the play's fantasy and supernatural elements. Their line delivery, their moves, their laughs, their cries, their body language and their interaction with Squires is sensational.

 As Conjur Man, John Fabiani offers a wonderfully animated performance that is rife with pulse, excitement, mystery and craziness which the actor effortlessly elicits brilliantly. Patrick Kelly as Marvin Hudgens captures the character's chauvinistic and egotistic persona without ever missing a beat. It's a part he inhabitants brilliantly, always conveying the tough, queasy desperation of a man who often comes in second in life and with women and every now and then, gets his ass whopped hard much to the delight of those around him.

"Dark of the Moon" is being staged at the Sherman Playhouse (5 Rt. 39 North, Sherman, CT), now through Oct. 15.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 354-3622.


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