Review by Neal Weaver
The Fountain Theatre
Through November 30
Playwright John Biguenet’s engaging solo piece takes what looks like a light-weight premise and turns it into something rich and strange.
His protagonist is a Witch (Jenny O’Hara) living in her cottage “once upon a time in the deep, dark woods,” somewhere in Appalachia. She is a crone, who wears the traditional witch’s garb — long black draperies, topped with a snarl of long white hair. But she also has a twinkle in her eye, a sly wit, a passionate sense of justice, and a taste for ambiguities.
Tonight she is receiving a visitor—a man she befriended when he was a lost runaway boy. He fled from her when he mistook the suckling pig she was cooking for him for a child. Or was it a mistake? In any case, she invites her visitor in, though we never see him. Is he a figment of her imagination? She sets out to tell him the story of her life.
She’s always been maligned and misunderstood, she tells him. Was it her fault that the farmer who cheated her when she bought her cow was suddenly plagued by warts on his hands, and chickens that ceased to lay? And surely it was a coincidence that after he refunded the price of her cow —and told her to keep the animal — his warts went away, and his hens began to lay again.
She tells him of her first love, with a boy named Jimmy whom she met when she was 10, and later fell in love — or lust — with him. She tells him about Jimmy’s death in a shipwreck, about her father, who may have murdered her mother, and the local trollop who fell down a well. It was suicide, she tells us — it must have been. She tells him about a game called nine fingers, which was played with a large chopper.
Biguenet’s play is written entirely in rhymed couplets, but they’re used so subtly and deftly that one only gradually realizes they are rhyming — and how the rhymes serve to bolster the sense of a fairy tale.
O’Hara delivers a tour-de-force performance, alternately funny, scary, sadistic, and sweet. Delivering her curses, making jokes, and telling us the story of her long and busy life, she somehow seems to touch on a welter of life’s experiences. Only at the very end does she indulge in a stereotypic burst of wild cackling—but that’s a bit of a joke: She’s only giving us what we expect of her. And director Stephen Sachs carefully modulates the performance, so it never ceases to surprise and entertain.
The huge and beautiful set by Andrew Hammer is a witch’s den worthy of Disney or Harry Potter in its richness of detail. Filled with flickering candles, myriad lanterns, bottles, and arcane objects, it encompasses enough props for a dozen plays, designed and gathered by Misty Carlisle. And filaments of cobweb and Spanish moss drape everything. Jennifer Edwards’ lighting design is properly atmospheric, but a little over-insistent. We soon catch onto the fact that the lights turning blue heralds some particularly dark tale or deed.
The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. (early perf Oct. 31, 7 p.m.); through Nov. 30. (323) 663-1525, http://www.fountaintheatre.com