Thu, Mar

A Star is Reborn


GELFAND’S WORLD--Dark of the Moon seems like a rather dated play, but it contains some up to the minute concepts. It is currently being performed by the Elysium Conservatory Theatre in San Pedro.

Unlike so many other productions, the ECT makes use of the immersive theater style, and this brings out viewer feelings in a way that wouldn't be possible using a more static staging. It involves southern mountain dwellers whose intolerance of outsiders leads to major hurt. Those who are different are spurned in the name of Christianity (sound familiar?). This play isn't set in a national election in the year 2016, but rather puts word and rhyme to an old fable about people who live in the Great Smokey Mountains. They believe in and interact with witches. But in this story, the witches are not mere humans who believe in magical things. They are a whole different life form who have no souls, live 300 years, and have powers such as inhuman strength and the ability to fly. They are different, and they are feared and spurned. To the modern viewer, they may perhaps symbolize something like a one-size-fits-all notion of immigrant refugees.

One of these witches goes by the name of John. He has observed a human female by the name of Barbara Allen and is smitten with her -- so much that he pleads with his fellow witches to make him fully human. If this is made to happen, he can wed Barbara Allen. 

The hill folk are quite the opposite of the witches, at least in their own eyes, being that they are working folk who split wood (it's hard work, and something that a witch wouldn't be able to do) and are dedicated to Christianity. Dark of the Moon explores the conflict between the humans who can commit cruelties in spite of their professed virtues, and the witches who revel in sexuality and demonstrate insensitivity to human pain. The lesson of this play (after much wandering through plot devices) is that the lines between the humans and the witches are blurred. There is some wisdom to be found among the witch folk, while there is a scary potential for inhumanity among the humans. 

There is a submerged but real sub-theme which is critical of all religious belief. After all, the protagonist John is without a soul and yet acts about as human as the real humans and projects more of what we would call "humanity." In particular, he lacks the xenophobia that every other member of the cast -- humans and witches both -- exudes. Perhaps John is an analogous to the good Samaritan. 

The play is set in a small community in which the folks act out their human foibles -- which mainly involve sexual repression along with a fairly substantial amount of giving in to temptation. They believe wholeheartedly that the result of this kind of sinning is to be damned and to be cast into Hell-fire. But they also believe that they can be relieved of their sins through sincere repentance. For this, they can best be saved in that public forum known as the revival meeting. 

Using the device of immersive theater, the ECT organizes the action so that the audience will experience the revival meeting head on and personally in the play's denouement. The effect of that experience is, at least as expressed by one of my fellow audience members, harrowing. 

In the meanwhile, Dark of the Moon humanizes its characters through their music and dance. They sing joyously of the virtues of corn liquor and romp through a traditional barn dance. We hear song solos and guitar performances along the way, as the characters express their longings and sorrows. 

Dark of the Moon borrows a standard plot theme that we have seen before. The witch boy John and the human girl Barbara Allen have a love that is contested by their society, with both witches and humans opposed to (in this case) a mixed-species marriage. It could have been Montagues and Capulets or dozens of other such pairings. 

Like other more ancient pieces, Dark of the Moon includes a test that Barbara Allen must pass in order to achieve her long term happiness with John. She must remain faithful for a full year in order for the magical change in John to endure. If she passes the test, he will remain a human and will stay married to her. If she fails, he will revert to witch form and she will die. 

Other reviewers compare this test to the Wagnerian character Senta in The Flying Dutchman. It is also analogous to the test given to the character Elsa in Lohengrin, who must refrain from asking her husband his name or rank or place of origin. We moderns might inquire, why does the test always have to fall on the woman? We might also state the obvious: Not asking your husband his name, or staying faithful for a whole year -- what could possibly go wrong? Let's just say that authors make a living off of such tragic encumbrances and audiences seem to lap them up. 

Dark of the Moon was first produced in 1939, in an era in which females acting out their sexuality was officially frowned upon, even as it was implicitly celebrated in the movies and at a certain level in popular song. Barbara Allen is cast in that same mold, a beautiful girl who is known to get around and finds herself pregnant from her encounter with the witch boy. 

I have been following the continuing rebirth of an experimental drama group in San Pedro known as the Elysium Conservatory Theatre. [https://www.fearlessartists.org/dotmprogram/] The ECT has performed everything from Hamlet to Oedipus Rex using its own variation on the style referred to as immersive theater. For those who haven't experienced it, immersive theater is the final experience of breaking down the fourth wall; that is to say, the audience and the actors are often intermixed and at many points are within an arm and a leg's length from each other. The audience walks from room to room for scene changes rather than waiting through the fall and rise of a curtain. In the final scene, we the audience are seated on the same church benches as cast members as we experience a revival meeting from the perspective of the participants. 

The technique of immersive theater is the difference that makes the ECT production of Dark of the Moon memorable, particularly in its tragic ending. This is a considerable accomplishment considering how dull this play can be in the wrong hands.  The point at which Dark of the Moon's human community is most highly religious is also the point at which it engages in an act of communal self-protection that sacrifices Barbara Allen and John in a singularly cruel way, and the immersive theater experience is what drives the point home to the audience. 

Critics have projected all sorts of themes and meaning into Dark of the Moon. Here is Alvin Klein in a 1991 New York Times review:  

"For all that, a tall tale's resonance is inescapable: the inhumanity of humans who are not so fair and far darker than witches, the ever-present implications of witch hunts, the horrific spoils of religious fanaticism. As unavoidably, the witch-boy can be perceived as a representation of man's dual nature, or as a manifestation of God on earth, driven by hatred, suspicion and superstition. And Barbara is a symbol of the individual defying the community. Or is this simply another tale of demonic possession? Whatever, it's all crammed in here." 

For our purposes, Dark of the Moon in its San Pedro rendition explores the results of communal narrow mindedness in combination with an even more narrow minded religion. Fear of the outsider is combined with group resistance against one of its own members who dares to rebel against the stifling taboos. It is at least a little reminiscent of scenes from political rallies from only a few months ago. 

A star is born, or in this case, born again 

The preacher is one of the driving forces in Dark of the Moon. He is the leader and patriarch of the community and plays a singular part in the tragedy that occurs at the revival meeting. 

A month before the opening of this play, the actor scheduled to play the role became seriously ill. The artistic director of the ECT, Aaron Ganz, took over the Preacher Haggler role. We've seen Ganz before, in roles as demanding as Hamlet. He has been focusing on developing the theater company and directing a group of young actors, but he obviously knows his stuff. He plays the preacher part fairly relaxed for most of the play, but in the revival scene, he portrays the evangelical preacher with a scary economy. His joyful shouts of "Saved" when sinners repent are decidedly credible. His willingness to sacrifice Barbara Allen in order to rid the community of a witch is both believable and horrifying at the same time. 

Ganz makes the Preacher Haggler character the personification of someone who believes deeply and, through this lack of introspection, ultimately allows terrible things to happen. To save souls and allow rape in the same evening is his essence. 

Charlotte Spangler's story is more like Knute Rockney All American than A Star is Born. In rehearsal, she was doing a particularly athletic leap over a stairwell railing onto the pavement below. Result -- a broken foot. Spangler was immediately out of a secondary role as a witch, but insisted on continuing her main role as Mrs. Allen, the mother of Barbara Allen. The only problem was that she is still casted (in real life) from toes to shin. That makes for a Mrs. Allen who hobbles around on one crutch. At this moment in rehearsals, one of her cast came up with an inspired idea and brought her a theatrical version of a big, heavy, wood crutch that could have been built by a local mountain man. 

Spangler has turned the crutch into a character (albeit a rather wooden one) in this production. She gestures with it, hops around on it, and in one memorable scene, reduces a slat box to broken shards by bashing it. That's one way to make a dramatic point. In conversation, Spangler went back and forth between the Great Smokey Mountain accent and her own Oregonian without pause. 

Speaking of accents, I'd like to add a brief anecdote. Several decades ago, I saw this play at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. It was being done by a college drama group from the English midlands, and the players kept trying to speak some version of hillbilly dialect. But to no avail. Their English accents and rolled R's kept getting in the way. Imagine the phrase "I reckon" in American southern, and then imagine it as a mix of stage-pseudo-southern and midlands English complete with that rolled R. It was a bad dream of a performance. I had always remembered Dark of the Moon with distaste, so I was looking forward to seeing how an authentically American company would do it. We might toss a word of thanks to ECT's vocal coach Chris Lang, because the spoken words were believably hilly without being intrusive. 

Kate Slinger and Justin Powell are the star crossed lovers John and Barbara. They fit the requirements of being physically attractive while managing to play characters who contain dramatically contrasting features. Barbara is a loving wife who was previously quite the runaround. John is an all too human person who knows what it means to be different. The story gets a lot of work out of the fact that John won't enter a house of God (after all, he has no human soul and won't go to heaven). This is both a clue to the humans and a plot device, as John cannot be present at the revival and therefore cannot protect Barbara from the humans. During the revival scene, Slinger maintains character as an unhappy, almost somnolent person surrounded by folks who whoop and holler for the saving of each repentant sinner. 

Rob Miller is amusing as Marvin Hudgens, the self-proclaimed "strongest man" in the region (of obvious importance in this kind of community, what with its use of fist fighting to settle differences) and Barbara's former boyfriend. His jealousy and lack of self-understanding lead to the dramatic and tragic scene at the end. His earlier fight with John (in which John bests him without breaking a sweat) could have come right out of a 19th century performance of Lohengrin. Just switch John's witchness for the German wunderkraft and there you have it. 

Gerard Alvarez is, ironically enough (considering my Edinburgh experience), from England, but manages to play the role of Barbara's father nicely. Apparently it is possible for English actors to play hillbillies after proper coaching. 

The darker side of this Dark of the Moon is its understated but real concern with religious practice. Religion itself may be OK it seems to be saying, but when practiced by all-too-imperfect humans, it is as much of a weapon as it is a tool of love. When used as an excuse or rationalization (the one being a lie, the other a self deception), it leads to bad things. One needs only think of the group of evangelists meeting with the President recently to feel that concern. The desire of the villagers in this play to render their community witch-free is a metaphor for our current situation.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]