Dark of the Moon
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 24, 2007
Thirsty Turtle Productions is a relatively young (about three years old) company, formed by recent college grads with lots of talent and energy. At least that's the picture I'm getting after my first encounter with their work: a revival of Dark of the Moon that isn't afraid to take risks, confronts the challenges of producing at the indie level head-on, and introduces us to several young artists whose work we will want to see on stage again and again.
The play, written in 1945 by Howard Richardson and William Berney, is one of the curiosities of American drama: I just don't know of anything else quite like it in the canon. It takes place in the Great Smoky Mountains, and tells the story of a young woman named Barbara Allen and her tragic love for a witch-boy named John. Richardson and Berney present their singular tale straightforwardly: John asks a supernatural being called "Conjur Man" to turn him into a human so that he can marry Barbara; when Conjur Man refuses, John goes to Conjur Woman, who is only too happy to comply (though we know she has dark, mysterious motives).
Barbara lives in a remote, rural, Christian society, a place where the local preacher is delighted to share your moonshine with you so long as you show up in church on Sunday ready to hear him rail about fire and brimstone. Barbara has lots of boyfriends, and is in what we used to call "trouble," and so Mr. and Mrs. Allen are thrilled when John pops up out of nowhere to marry her (Mr. Allen tried to get Barbara's suitor Marvin Hudgens to take her off his hands, but Marvin offered him a mule to get out of the deal). Having been born a witch, John is unable to ever enter a church, which arouses the ire of Barbara's neighbors. Eventually, it becomes clear to everyone that John has "spelled" Barbara and, at a revival meeting, drastic measures are taken to save her soul.
Now, you could try to call Dark of the Moon a precursor to The Crucible and other postwar plays about "witch-hunting," but you'd run right up against a significant obstacle: John really is a witch. So there's no misplaced scapegoating happening here; this story simply is what it is, a tale of doomed romance set in a very specific time and place. Director Ian Crawford doesn't look for subtext where none exists, which is greatly to his credit, delivering a fair-minded and forthright reading of this piece—old-time religion, scary witches, and all.
Crawford uses the problematic chashama space quite well. Set designer Emily French has provided a two-level playing area that helps to delineate the action; and Crawford puts some pivotal stuff in the aisle that leads to the dressing rooms.
Conjur Man and Conjur Woman are represented here by huge puppets, designed by Dakotah West and operated (and voiced) by four actors apiece. West's concept for Conjur Woman is pretty sensational, with large sagging breasts beneath a big necklace as her salient feature; the puppets are probably too large for the space, however, and I can't say that this idea is entirely successful.
But the music—folk songs and church hymns, played on authentic instruments (guitar, spoons, dulcimer)—is plentiful and excellent. Layla Pearl Sogut's costumes are generally effective.
A few of the members of the large ensemble make striking impressions. Noah J. Dunham, a newcomer to the NYC stage, is outstanding as John, creating a complex, sympathetic portrayal and demonstrating significant stage presence. Also particularly noteworthy are Brendan Norton as Floyd Allen, Barbara's younger brother; Katey Parker as Mrs. Allen; and Jake Thomas as Preacher Haggler.
Dark of the Moon is an intriguing curiosity; it doesn't get revived all that often, so it's definitely worth a look when it does get staged. And this production from Thirsty Turtle shows us a smart and promising young company working hard at their craft, which always brings satisfaction and pleasure.