If you’re looking for a genuinely exciting and refreshingly unique evening of untraditional theatre, you definitely don’t want to miss out on “Witch! A New Musical,” directed by Ryan Haase with musical direction by Stacey Antoine. The moment you step into the show’s eclectic playing space in the former warehouse turned arts venue known as Area 405, it should be pretty apparent to most audience members that what’s in store might be a little out of the ordinary. As you make your way through an expansive lobby, you begin to absorb a gloriously eerie atmosphere even before you make it to the main “theatre,” another enormous room. There, animated projections by Ben Pierce flicker behind an enormous cauldron, the centerpiece of a striking set designed by Haase (who also designed the lighting), that further sets the mood for the play’s magical subject matter.
If you’re prepared to be spellbound by stagecraft and wowed by the wonder of womanhood, it’s well-worth it to see this ‘Witch’ take flight!
Rather than focus on any single witch in question, the piece examines the shifting archetype of the witch which has served as a vehicle for all sorts of negative beliefs about women as a whole— especially those who have the gall to defy convention. In only its second production since the 2018 world premiere at Creative Cauldron (that incorporated all the same songs and lyrics but with a completely different script), this intriguing piece was conceived by prolific Washington-based creators, Matt Conner (music) and Stephen Gregory Smith (book and lyrics).
As the play’s opening draws near, a mysterious “coven” of lovely ladies—each clad in a black dress ornamented with her own mix of accessories (thanks to Costume Designer Kitt Crescenzo)—start to make their way towards the stage from various places around the room. Throughout the show, they regularly wander and dance through the aisles and alongside the audience. The sense of being surrounded by the story was genuinely enchanting. The only downside was that, occasionally, it was difficult to figure out where to look.
After an evocative opening number that set the thematic scene, it wasn’t long before the Supreme Witch and narrator, played by Kristen Zwobot, directly addressed and engaged audience members, and did so throughout the play. She invited the audience to raise its hands and then indicate, by progressively putting down fingers, whether we’d ever had certain experiences that would allow us to relate to what was happening onstage.
It’s in tomfoolery like this, along with a variety of other creative stylistic touches, that infuse the show’s script and staging. This allowed the production to maintain a playful, cheeky atmosphere that served as a talisman against tedium. Impressively, it kept that sense of fun and whimsy despite the darkness inherent in detailing the persecution and execution of several historical “witches.”
Mary Webster (Sarah Burton) was accused in the 1680s of witchcraft but interestingly survived. Joan of Arc (Caitlin Weaver) was notoriously burned at stake for her “demonic” visions. You might find yourself perversely entertained by the wacky way in which her demise is depicted here. From “The Crucible,” Rebecca Nurse (Christine Demuth), also based on a specific real-life counterpart, gets the chance to again to proclaim her innocence from beyond the grave in an affecting song with lyrics drawn directly from her actual testimony.
The show also takes the opportunity to bring attention to some more obscure victims of the anti-witch agenda. For example, it illuminated the legend of a 17th century Maryland woman named Molly Dwyer (Amber Wood) in a folksy tune. If you aren’t familiar with the name Margaret Hamilton (Rachel Blank), hers is a face you’ll probably know the instant you see it. As recounted in the ballad, “Hollywoodland,” it’s the face of a woman who was, by all accounts, a wonderful one. Because casting directors deemed her harsh features to be a perfect fit for a villainess, she is now remembered almost solely for her role as the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.” Though the tone of this song in particular did strike me as a bit overwrought, it does allow Blank to deliver a stunning vocal performance while also serving to broaden the scope of the show’s thematic explorations.
In drawing a line between women cast out of polite society for unconventional behavior and those whose options have been limited by an unconventional appearance, the show traces its way from one of the more wicked ways in which misogyny has traditionally expressed itself, to the way in which prejudices and preconceptions still inform the female experience today. Yet the fact that witch hunts aren’t all in the past is also something that the play emphasizes in “Gambaga.” The name of the song refers to the “witch camp” where a woman named Ma Hawa (JacQuan Knox) was exiled after being accused of witchcraft. This is something that still happens to a thousand women every year.
Witty references to the modern political landscape—and the myriad other ways in which women’s behavior and bodies are now routinely policed—also pepper the production. The ensemble number, “Pretty,” alludes to the constant pressure of living up to beauty standards.
It isn’t all raging mobs and pitchforks. Another through line of the play is the awesome power women have displayed in spite of these considerable obstacles—such as in a haunting “Crone Song” that celebrates the wisdom and grace of older women in a world that often dismisses them. “Sweep Them Out” imagines the witch’s broom as something that might be used to sweep a politician out of office, and nods at how the women of today may be able to use their power to engineer a more equitable tomorrow.
The future of “Witch” could be an exciting one, despite the fact that the show seemed to be missing whatever connective tissue that might allow it to truly congeal. Though the insights never quite exceed the surface level, there’s enough that does work about this spirited effort that I’d be intrigued to see what an expanded version could encompass. While there were a few imperfections in some of this production’s technical elements, the talent and commitment of the cast and the bold originality of the whole are more than enough to make up for these minor issues. If you’re prepared to be spellbound by stagecraft and wowed by the wonder of womanhood, it’s well-worth it to see this “Witch” take flight!
Running Time: One hour and five minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Adult language and content, descriptions and depictions of violence.
“Witch! A New Musical” runs through November 25, 2023 at Area 405, 405 E Oliver Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. For more information and tickets, go online.