With any show described as a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, the audience is likely to know from the beginning what the end will be: sad. Howard Richardson and William Berney's Dark of the Moon, set in 1920's Appalachia, is no exception. The story is an intense spiral of melancholy, yet there's much to appreciate, and even some musical good cheer, in Phare Play's production at the Lodestar Theater. After all, if you already know the ending, you're free to just experience the play as it occurs—in this case, the experience is defined most by a strongly evocative sense of place. Between the setting, the Appalachian dialect, and the communal sensibility of the large cast, you might forget you're in a theater in Midtown.
At the start of the play, the witch boy John begs Conjur Man and Conjur Woman to make him human so he can court the free-spirited Barbara Allen. A deal is struck under the condition that Barbara Allen must remain faithful for a year—otherwise, John will once again become a witch.
Kevin Sebastian as John and Emily Mostyn-Brown as Barbara Allen do seem to have a magnetic attraction, and Barbara Allen's parents are mostly relieved to marry off their already pregnant daughter. But Barbara Allen's latest steady, Marvin, is not happy to be outdone by the physically smaller, though charismatic, John. (A tableau showing the two men's heights is visually one of the play's best moments.) As a result, Marvin is left wanting revenge. When the townspeople peg John for a witch—and John's former witch companions, jealous of Barbara Allen, make a bargain of their own with Conjur Man—the couple's fortunes begin to unravel.
The setting is carved out of a mountain—a backdrop painted a shimmering brown, with a couple of sparse trees, meant to portray a rural North Carolina town. And though it's not a musical in the traditional sense, there are bluegrass and folk gospel tunes sprinkled throughout the production. Director Blake Bradford smartly uses the musical numbers as a natural part of the villagers' lives, and bluegrass songs that the villagers use to pass the time are often more spiritual than some of the gospel hymns.
The instrumentals—down to the washboard and mandolin—are well played. Several cast members are in fact bluegrass musicians, and most of the vestiges of typical musical-theater voices are stamped out in favor of a folk/mountain music sound. By the end of the play, even some of the dialogue erupts in rhythmic choral chanting, a logical progression for this churchgoing community that tends to walk in step.
The dialogue suggests that it's a sense of freedom that makes the witches different from the humans, in both good and bad qualities—and that being a witch is spiritually easier. But the seemingly stunted movements of the witches, who drag their bodies across the stage, can be almost hard to watch, and they belie any suggestion of freedom. A later scene, where the witches move together fleetly, makes more sense.
The production is in some ways a little rough around the edges, and it's difficult not to wonder about some of the leaps in logic in the text itself. Why can Marvin beat up John, though John was previously able to level him with one hand? And to a modern audience, part of the resolution is actually a bit appalling.
Yet there's certainly a visceral, atmospheric appeal to Dark of the Moon that has a strong pull. I left wondering if John had indeed bewitched Barbara Allen, as the town people wondered. Or if, like the storytelling that wins Desdemona's heart in Othello, such star-crossed love is a spell in itself.