As a fan of ghost stories and Appalachian music, it was easy for me to get excited about Bell Wringer, a bluegrass musical centering on the legend of the Bell Witch, a spirit so named because she is said to have terrorized the Bell family of Tennessee back in the 1800s. Pinky Swear’s Fringe production is a new take on the haunting, positing that although the ghost terrorized the entire Bell family, her real target was its patriarch, John, and her maddening antics were payback for his abuse of his wife and general immorality.
In spite of its ghostly premise, this production veers more toward the hootenanny or hoedown side of the story. The stage, set with chairs, random costume pieces, and various folk instruments, feels alive and friendly. Most of the tunes are upbeat, and even the witch herself (a wonderfully vengeful Karen Lange, who is also the composer and half the playwrighting team) is less scary than she is funny and fiery, as she sets out on her mission to pester the worst man in the world to death. Director Kevin Place is smart to take this approach, as the show is at its best when it provides time to get lost in silly tangents and side characters. The talented cast (Lange, James Finley, Tom Howley, Nicole Ruthmarie, Jordan Avellino, Nicola Collett) shines as an ensemble, so the moments where the quirky townsfolk lay their own filter over the strange happenings are both more fun and true to the idea that history gets a bit twisted over time.
Though some of the musical numbers still need a bit of polishing, the band — a guitar, banjo, and fiddle set up at the back — is lively and full of bluegrass flavor. The energetic cast is delightful when they join in with their own voices and instruments, so although the spookiness might be missing, at a concise 75 minutes, it’s fine to just sit back and enjoy Bell Wringer.
Running Time: 75 minutes.
Director: Kevin Place
Playwright: Seth Alcorn, Karen Lange
Performers: Karen Lange, James Finley, Tom Howley, Nicole Ruthmarie, Jordan Avellino, Nicola Collett
Composer: Karen Lange and Various traditional tunes
Age appropriateness: Recommended for Children 13 + older
The complete 2023 Capital Fringe Festival guidebook is online here.