Mirror, mirror on the wall, which local musical enchants and enrages us all? WITCH, produced by Stillpointe Theatre and onstage in Area 405 Gallery in Baltimore, is a wickedly engaging but ultimately slight new musical that fuses the history of witchcraft and contemporary socio-political issues with a strong cast of weird sisters. Directed by Ryan Haase with musical direction by Stacey Antoine, WITCH invites us to join a welcoming coven for the evening.
The industrial space–turned–stage conjures up the right mood: nicely designed and lighted by Haase with a large central cauldron, many candles, a scattering of leaves, blue and green-tinted lighting, and broomsticks affixed to the walls, while the house band (Stacey Antoine, Tanner Shelby, Chanel Whitehead, Joe Pipkin), propmaster Anna Platis, and evocative projections by Ben Pierce all add their own touches of hocus pocus.
It’s in this safe and sacred feminine space where we learn the stories of six historical witches.
There is a trio of women all accused during the height of witchcraft hysteria in the U.S. colonies, c. 1680s–90s: the Maryland legend of Moll Dyer (Amber Wood with a great rock voice), Mary Webster (a winsome Sarah Burton), and Rebecca Nurse (Christine Demuth). Despite what a former, twice-impeached president who is currently charged with 91 felonies and lost the popular vote twice may say… we may not actually be witnessing the greatest witch hunt of all time whenever we turn on the evening news. (And if you don’t like that comparison, then WITCH is not the play for you.)
The lamenting song “Innocent” takes almost verbatim the words of Rebecca Nurse’s self-defense during her witch trial as she articulates her piety and her innocence, her love of her God, family, and community. (Greedy neighbors hurled the charges against the well-respected grandmother over a property dispute.) As Demuth sings the plaintive and touching hymn, the names of victims of the Salem Witch Trials scroll across a moon-like screen behind her.
The story of actress and educator Margaret Hamilton (Rachel Blank, a strong belter) — best known for her iconic portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz — begins to explore how her long career has been reduced to one role. Saint Joan of Arc’s (an energetic Caitlin Weaver) trial for heresy and witchcraft is comically depicted as a rigged game show, complete with a ticking clock and buzzer. (George Bernard Shaw’s nuanced Saint Joan, this ain’t.) We are also given the much more recent plight of Ma Hawa (JacQuan Knox, in a promising Stillpointe debut), a Ghanan first wife ousted by her husband’s new spouse and banished to the Gambaga Witch Camp, reminding us that over 1,000 people across the world are formally accused of witchcraft each year.
Through these women’s stories, the musical connects to many contemporary issues: abortion rights, rape culture, sexual objectification, unrealistic beauty standards, and more. “Why is this continually happening?” asks the Supreme Witch. Why, indeed?
Each witch’s story is introduced by such an acronym — “Why isn’t the church honest?” “Women in trouble choose help” — and the various histories are loosely tied together by the Supreme Witch (a riveting Kristen Zwobot), who acts as the play’s narrator, stirring her large cauldron and asking each witch to take centerstage for her number, before throwing an emblematic totem — such as a ring or herbs — into the potion.
Each member of the cast is bewitching in her own right, especially in the haute gothy get-ups designed by Kitt Crescenzo with hair and makeup by Danielle Robinette. (Christopher Kabara performs all the male voices in the play from a raised platform behind the audience.) The strong ensemble is all game to camp it up as needed, belt out some ballads, perform some broomography (choreographed by Haase and Kristin Rigsby), and make us ponder the connections to our own fraught moment in time and the politicized, gendered rhetoric we encounter, from “nasty woman” to “lock her up.”
This may be best exemplified in the jazzy and jaunty political anthem “Sweep Them Out” about the power of voting or the final song “Hung Up,” with its refrain of “Nevertheless she persisted, nevertheless she resisted.”
And that’s nicely connected to the history of WITCH, first conceived of by Matt Conner and Gregory Smith in 2016, as they anticipated the misogyny that the first woman president would receive in her role (and in the case of Hillary Clinton, the decades of vitriol she had already endured). By the time the show first appeared onstage at Creative Cauldron (a very apropos location for many reasons) in 2018, the work also reflected the Women’s March and #MeToo movements. For this production at Stillpointe, Conner and Smith returned to and revised their previous work.
Even in this revised production, the musical still feels a little drafty. The concept is fantastic, but the book is decidedly stronger than the score. Because of the diversity of time periods, character backgrounds, and themes, a greater variety of musical genres and styles could really get this work off the ground. The various histories could be better interwoven with a reprise, and we could spend a little more time with each witch if they had more than one song each. (A few of the songs such as “Pretty,” about beauty standards, and the final few numbers “Crone Song” and “Closing the Circle” are especially strong.) Clocking in at just over an hour, the whole spell ends quicker than someone from Kansas can drop a house on the Witch of the East.
There are also opportunities to create a more inclusive concept of “witch,” considering the lives and stories of practicing witches, challenging white feminists’ reclamation of the term and history of the witch, and bringing in more varied perspectives and performances (such as brujería or queer and trans magick practicing). The term “witch” remains purposely ambiguous in the musical, denoting any woman (and occasional man) who was on the outskirts of society — elderly, disabled, unattractive, or otherwise different enough. They are also healers and protectors, visionaries and saints, and as the play cleverly proves: witches are our neighbors, our mothers, our friends, and ourselves.
In one of the great strengths of this promising flight of fancy, the Supreme Witch asks for audience reflection and participation, such as writing love spells in invisible ink, noting our own accepted superstitious practices, or joining in on choruses. It pulls the audience into the making of magic, the healing powers of sisterhood and representation, and the promise of a brighter future for all witches ahead.
Running Time: 65 minutes with no intermission.
The program for WITCH is online here.
COVID Safety: Masking is optional and Stillpointe Theatre offers masks for patrons who wish to use them during the performance.
WITCH: A New Musical by Matt Conner and Gregory Smith
Ryan Haase:* Director, Set/Lighting Design & Choreographer
Stacey Antoine:* Music Director
Kirstin Rigsby: Choreographer
Danielle Robinette:* Hair and Makeup
Kitt Crescenzo:* Costumes
Ben Pierce: Projections
Anna Platis:* Props
Christine Demuth:* Dramaturg
Nolan Cartwright: Poster
Amber Wood: Moll Dyer
Caitlin Weaver: Joan of Arc
Christine Demuth:* Rebecca Nurse
Christopher Kabara:* Male Voices
JacQuan Knox: Ma Hawa
Kristen Zwobot: Supreme Witch
Sarah Burton:* Mary Webster
Rachel Blank:* Margaret Hamilton
Stacey Antoine:* Piano/Conductor
Tanner Shelby: Guitar
Chanel Whitehead: Cello
Joe Pipkin:* Percussion
*Denotes StillPointe Company Member