Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, April 16, 2001

A Broadway hit in 1945, "Dark of the Moon" poses
a romance between a boy witch and mortal mountain girl.
The production stars Frances Enos, center, joined by
Augustine Downes on guitar, Peter Bunn, back, and
John D'Auria, right.

Witch-mortal revival
outshines its warts

Reviewed by Scott Vogel

The first thing you learn while watching "Dark of the Moon," which opened on Friday evening at the Hawaii Pacific University Theatre, is that being a witch is a far more complicated matter than we've previously been led to believe. Certainly, there are witches content to spend eternity riding on broomsticks, casting spells, acting in '60s sitcoms and posing for Halloween masks. But there is a second and less familiar type of witch for whom sorcery is little more than a dead-end career.

Malcontents such as these will stop at nothing to flee the trappings of the conjuring life. In the present instance, John, known affectionately as Witch Boy, stands ready to trade both warts and cauldron for the love of a plain-old Appalachian girl named Barbara Allen (Claire Fallon). Descending into the mortal sphere, he imagines, will bring one long stream of endless pleasures, which in this case appears to consist chiefly of marriage, birthing babies and chopping wood.

This does not seem to be a fair trade, but is in a sense forgivable given John's recklessly romantic notion of human existence. Once he meets Barbara Allen's relatives -- one of the dimmest families in all of Dogpatch -- you might think he'd reconsider his plan. But John's blind devotion to his love is typical of tragic heroes in general and creaky old plays like this in particular. The lovers, who come from opposite sides of the broomstick, are of course doomed. And like another play from eight years later, Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," the tragedy is precipitated by an angry, ignorant mob whose intolerance of diversity brings on a witch hunt. Of course, in this case, they actually find a witch, but let's pass on.

"Dark of the Moon" was a Broadway hit in 1945, a strange melding of natural and supernatural elements that must have seemed awfully novel to theater audiences of the day. Based in part on "The Ballad of Barbara Allen," a folk tune of obscure lineage, this Howard Richardson and William Berney play paired a Smoky Mountain ghost story with a multitude of banjo-guitar-fiddle songs, all of it tied together by a conceit the rules of which are never precisely established.

The baldly named Conjur Woman (Louise South) -- a sort of head witch -- agrees to grant John (Noah Johnson) his wish to live among the earthlings. First, however, he must relinquish all his witchy powers. Second, Barbara Allen must be faithful to him for a period of one year. If she can forego "pleasuring herself" (as the script delicately puts it) for that period, John will remain a human forever. If not, he will turn back into a witch, and Barbara will be killed. It's never clear why John's salvation is pinned to Barbara's moral failings. Perhaps this is witch logic. But the fact that John seems sometimes to possess supernatural powers (e.g., when fighting the strongest man in town) and sometimes not (e.g., when all that wood needs chopping) is pure illogic, plain and simple. And the hazy rules of the playwrights' world become quite distracting.

But thankfully, there is more to "Dark of the Moon" than supernatural melodrama, and it is out of these elements that director Joyce Maltby has somehow managed to create an evening that succeeds despite a plodding plot line. The ensemble scenes, many of which require most of the cast of 23 to be singing and dancing at once, are the heart of this production, and they are exquisitely directed.

Jason Taglianetti's sound design and Renee Wing's choreography are commendable complements to the hoedown-cum-revival meetings that seem to occur about every 15 minutes in this town. And the ensemble gives a performance that is both well sung and energetically delivered.

As is to be expected with a cast this size, the acting is a mixed bag. Still, the leads are already proficient, and once they settle into their roles -- Noah Johnson, in particular, must learn to relax his body -- they will be more than that.

As it stands now, the greatest pleasure afforded by the acting comes from the smaller roles, some of it so delicate you're apt to miss it unless you pay close attention. Watch in particular for the hangdog dourness Augustine Downes brings to the part of Barbara Allen's younger brother, and the Bible-thumping brimstone provided by John D'Auria as the town preacher.

If Conjur Men exist, they most likely look and act exactly like Lew Lappert, which I hope he takes as a compliment. And don't miss the way Jan McGrath holds her arms as she tsk-tsks Barbara for her choice of husbands, or the way Paul Niiyama (as the aforementioned strongman) smiles from under the brim of his straw hat. It's via such seemingly small touches as these that a production comes to life, and another theater patron might come up with an entirely different -- yet equally worthy -- list.

After its first successful run in New York, "Dark of the Moon" slipped into a decades-long obscurity from which it has never quite escaped, and I can't say I'm surprised. Despite being full of magic and spells, the drama is not terribly entrancing, at least by contemporary standards. Luckily, however, Maltby and her cast prove themselves to be the equals of the play's conjurers. It's their witchcraft, rather than the playwrights', that finally leaves us spellbound.


What: "Dark of the Moon"
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays, through May 6
Where: Hawaii Pacific University Theatre, Hawaii Loa campus
Cost: $14 general; $10 for seniors, military, students, HPU faculty and staff; $5 HPU students
Call: 375-6415

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