Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Witch Ball (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

This review will seem just a bit schizophrenic. For that I apologize in advance.

Here's the thing. I can tell here we have a cast of genuinely talented people (I know a few of them, have seen them in other shows, etc.). They clearly have "gelled' the way every single director dreams of casts doing. You can tell that in about a dozen different ways, not least how they all invade each others' spaces without discomfort. They also show great trust, pushing some boundaries, and interact on a physical level that proves very impressive.

You can tell there's a "but" coming can't you? Well, yeah.  Not a very huge one, though.

Witch Ball by Zombie Joe himself, is an odyssey involving a strange glass ball created to capture a poltergeist, but one which ended up vastly more powerful that intended. Even its maker felt a little awestruck by what he'd made and tried to persuade the widow who'd commissioned the thing to reconsider taking it. He failed, of course, and therein starts the weird wonderful journey.

The ensemble plays a wide range of dramatis personae, up to and including witch doctors, gay cowboys, the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne, inhabitants of Salem, a lady lion tamer, an albino racoon, more than one witch, demons, a happily married couple, a chorus of Angels from the Mormon Heaven plus a fair number of loving couples of (very) many descriptions. All in one way or another encounter the title character in the course of about two centuries.

It is a new and original myth, a fairy tale for the mystic grown up.  Not a fable, though. Those, from the stories of Aesop to J.K.Rowling, have some kind of specific message, a lesson to impart. Here, we have a history, one from which to take whatever we can find.

Honestly the script was my favorite part of the show.

What bothered me was a lack of technique on the part of the cast. Let me be clear--they all showed lots of talent. More, some of what interfered with their performances was nothing more than opening night jitters. Here's a tip--we critics tend to see the least good performance of any play, namely opening night. Casts always get better once the show ends up on its feet.  In fact, I noticed the nervousness of the cast actually bleed away as the show went on. To give a concrete example, at the very start their timing was a bit off, but by the end was nearly perfect. Likewise when the play began, I was having trouble understanding roughly one quarter of what many of them were saying!  By the end of that initial performance, I was only having trouble making out perhaps ten percent. So I would bet money if you go see Witch Ball (which for the record I'm recommending you do) you'll see a better performance than I did.

Having said that, a play that contains quite so much direct speaking to the audience in semi-poetic language, for long speeches which set up the feel of the tale and of the different settings as well as one vignette after another, vocal technique makes a difference.  A real one.  And sadly, most of this cast doesn't have that level of vocal technique, at least not consistently.

The Chorus
Kudos btw to co-directors Roger K. Weiss and Nancy Woods for working with the cast and creating vivid characters for the three-person 'Chorus.' In fact nearly all the characterization went swimmingly, complete with accents and body language to create instantly recognizable differences between the (many) parts nearly everyone played. When the chorus members interacted between themselves was frankly my favorite. Also the choreography provided by Denise Devine really helped coalesce the whole thing--a slightly pscychodelic ensemble that reminded me of frankly some of my very favorite theatrical experiences from Alice at the Palace to Son of Semele's Our Class.

Given the dozens and dozens of characters, identifying them with individual parts would have taken about an hour of interviews after the show as well as review twice as long. Let me note the Chorus were Deirdre Anderson, Michael James Luckins and Nicole Sahagian.  The Players on the other hand were James Han, Stepy Kamei, Polina Matveeva, Lezlie Moore, Matthew Peter Murphy, Bradley Orok and of course co-director Nancy Woods.

Witch Ball plays Saturday nights at 8:30pm until May 9, 2015 at ZJU, 4850 Lankershim Blvd (across from KFC, just south of the NoHo sign), North Hollywood CA 91601. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at zombiejoes.tix.com or by calling (818) 202-4120.

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