Reviewed by Bill Raden
True Focus Theater at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater
Through October 25
As the theater season shifts into Halloween mode, and Los Angeles is again inundated with scores of immersive shocks and Gothic-themed holiday frights, leave it to the all-women True Focus Theater troupe to put a freshly spellbinding spin on a misogynistic blood libel of ancient folklore and demonology — the witch.
Weaving together a collage of found and original texts — both ancient prayers and more recent literary invocations — HEX plays as an incantatory and erotic musical cabaret of diabolical song and ritual dance. The company persuasively peels back the patriarchal accretions of maleficent myth to argue that the true black magic responsible for giving so many Puritans and Hollywood screenwriters the wiccaphobic night sweats is the unfettered power of female sexuality, which HEX delivers in spades.
Attractively composed by director Vanessa Cate (full disclosure: Cate is also an editor and critic at Stage Raw) and choreographed by Cate, Deneen Melody and Marietta Melrose, the devised evening’s linear trajectory roughly outlines the history of witching from a distinctly gender-savvy point of view. Twenty-five choreographed chants, spells, poems and the odd satirical sketch trace the evolution of the sorceress from her roots in pre-Christian goddess worship, through her demonized appropriation by both Elizabethan dramatists and ecclesiastical witch burners, to her emergence as a supernatural gothic-horror trope, and finally to her modern spiritual rehabilitation by the Neopagan and Wicca New Age movements.
Included are Wicker Man-styled dance duets (by Melody & Cheryl Doyle); larger-scale, heavy-breathing tribal ceremonies (performed by Melody, Melrose, Kat Nelson-Bergfeld, Ashley J. Woods, Alariza Nevarez and Caitlin Fowler); an entire, three-part section on lycanthropy that progresses from a werewolf incantation (intoned by Sasha Snow) to a wolf dance (Melody, Doyle, Nevarez, Melrose, Fowler, Emma Pauly and Ashley J. Woods) that resolves itself as a kinky cartoon version of Little Red Riding Hood, with Snow as the black-corseted prey and Kat Nelson-Bergfeld as her predatory ravisher; and a twisted lullaby riff on the more malevolent aspects of baby dolls and child play (Fowler, Nevarez, Snow and Nelson-Bergfeld).
The latter part of the evening takes a more explicit turn into the erotic as the dances become more overtly sexual and the costuming (uncredited) more sparse. Its climax includes Pauly’s recitation of Christopher Marlowe’s invocation — translated by Pauly into Latin! — of Mephistopheles (embodied by dancers Snow, Fowler, Melrose and Nevarez) from Doctor Faustus. And the section culminates with Cate appearing as Lucifer in an ecstatic and increasingly violent dance seduction of Melody that finally completes itself in an act which church fathers once tactfully referred to as “familiarity with ye devil.”
Though an enchanting ensemble delivers its quota of Zombie Joe moments (Cate is a veteran member of the Gothic horror company) — most notably a sleekly sexed-up company dance performance of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” and a bedlam number in which Nelson-Bergfeld attempts to exorcise a coven of shrieking hysterics — the show is most effective when making its point that the persecution of witches is merely slut-shaming by other means. “We’re the ones who burned before you ever set a torch to us,” the company chants in a poignantly lyrical epigraph. That affirmation is HEX’s most convincing trick in its assortment of thought-provoking treats.