The play begins as the story of Hansel and Gretel—as told from the witch’s point of view. You just wouldn’t believe what a naughty little girl that Gretel is! As is the witch, because cooking a little boy is a naughty thing to do, even if you are a really good cook.
The play is Broomstick by New Orleans author and playwright John Biguenet, and his star is the always delicious and delightful Jenny O’Hara. (You may remember her cajoling her actor/husband, Nick Ullett, to authenticate a Jackson Pollock painting in the long-running megahit Bakersfield Mist.)
In Broomstick O’Hara is the unrecognizable, unnamed witch who beguiles the audience with an 80-minute monologue about the events in her life, the evils in the world, and her abiding malevolence toward men. She is equivocal and defensive about her witchiness, however, condemning her neighbors for seeing things around her that are not as they seem. Or are they?
She tells of an incident in the woods where a group of her male Appalachian neighbors beat three “Negroes” to death for taking, without permission, some fruit and pie from a demented old woman. Outraged, the witch inflicts punishment on the killers, not unlike the punishments meted out to the Pharaoh in biblical times. “Large animals are not the best,” she advises. “It’s better to kill with bugs.”
Playwright Biguenet apparently has a special thing for old crones. “To me, witches aren’t something exotic,” he says. “They are always old women, independent and unsentimental, and they really have no use for men.” Moreover, he continues, “You can’t fool a witch. That’s why they frighten people.”
For witches, he believes, the source of their power is language. “She can cast spells and curse us, and when she cackles it raises the hair on your neck.”
The source of Biguenet’s power is language as well. And O’Hara delivers it with just the right blend of anger, indignation, and sly humor. And it takes a while for the audience to discover that the dialogue is all in rhyme. Iambic pentameter, unevenly spaced so that sometimes the listener must wait for half a paragraph for the rhyme to show up. It’s a fascinating way to tell a story.
Saving the best for last, I must tell you about Andrew Hammer’s extraordinary set design. One of the best ever. It’s the inner room of the witch’s house, complete with big stone fireplace, lit candles everywhere, and a lifetime’s worth of clutter. Every nook and cranny is crammed with empty Mason jars, cauldrons, various places to sit, and witchy accoutrements. But no gumdrops, cupcakes, or gingerbread men.
The setting is enhanced by Jennifer Edwards’ spooky lighting design: the stage goes dark and bluish when the witch is telling one of her “clarifying” fantasies.
Stephen Sachs, who directed this phantasmagorical epic, has done his usual magic, but the play is for grownups, not for kids. The language and the references are esoteric and need to be vigorously listened to—like getting into the rhythm of Shakespeare. Further, O’Hara, who does a masterful job of ranting and raving, sometimes descends into a whisper that swallows the point she is trying to make.
So just look at Broomstick as a Halloween treat from the fabulous Fountain Theatre. And think, it’s better than toilet paper all over your lawn!
Broomstick will run Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 through November 30th, with a 6 pm curtain on October 31st (Halloween) and playgoers invited to come in costume.
The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Avenue (at Normandie) in Los Angeles. Call (323) 663-1525 for tickets or go online to www.FountainTheatre.com
Photo: Jenny O’Hara as the Witch
Photo by Ed Krieger