Underlying Witches Vanish, the new play by Venus Theatre Company (and third entry in the DC area-wide Women’s Voices Theater Festival), is a cold bedrock of fact: A tremendous amount of women are missing. Oftentimes just a blurb on the evening news, these women all have personal histories, family and friends, and a vibrant emotional life that is rarely portrayed.
Playwright Claudia Barnett never lets us forget this basic truth by including, between each of the ten vignettes that make up her show, an overlapping cacophony of 82 women’s names, from across the world and across history, stated by the actors in a movingly quotidian tone that brings into stark relief just what the whole play is about.
No series of inter-scene “chanting,” crafted by master sound designer Claudia Barnett, is ever boring or repetitive, in part because we crave to know more about each name that is read. And although Witches Vanish hasn’t the time to delve into each of the 82 names, it does drill down into a few individual cases in an attempt to bring texture and roundness to women who are so often reduced to just a name and a milk carton mug shot.
The source material that the ten vignettes of Witches Vanish draw from is incredibly diverse: history, astronomy, Shakespeare and fairy tales, to name a few. A large chunk of the play focuses on the story of “La Cenacienta” (Cinderella in Spanish) a young Mexican woman (Vivian Allvin) who is sent to labor in a Jaurez factory only to go missing. Much time, too, is spent on the Weird Sisters from Macbeth who deliver lines straight from the Bard’s text around a seething cauldron made up of two actors, the “Shadow Witches” (Jennifer Berry and Latisha Jones). But there is so much more beyond these two predominant narratives: A Soviet gulag, Inquisition Spain, and Little Red Riding Hood, to name a few. It is not difficult to get lost in between all the overlapping layers of history and poetry, staging and metaphor.
But what the show sacrifices in meaning by spinning such an intricate web of free-association motifs it makes up for in sheer poetry. Some examples:
In Scene 9: Four Times, a vignette about the global sex trade, the shadow witches dig under the raised center of the stage and pull out dozens of pairs of shoes, from high heels to baby booties, and place them just so in an arrangement that calls to mind consumerism on one level, the Holocaust on another.
In Scene 10: La Cenicienta (part 3), a dead girl speaks to a living girl from underneath a literal veil of stretchy white fabric. As she speaks from underneath her lycra cocoon, her face protrudes and recedes, creating a shifting white desert landscape of fabric.
In Scene 3: Swimming in the Afternoon, a bound woman (Lakeisha Raquel Harrison) is cursed to bear children for the state by her clucking maybe-mother, a masked hag portrayed in the style of commedia del arte by Tara Cariaso.
There are so many more such examples that are breathtaking in the scope of what they are saying and how they are saying it. Part of this is Claudia Barnett’s script, but part of it too is Director Deborah Randall’s virtuosity in staging. Randall has a seriously sculptural approach to performance that never fails to make the tiny Venus space appear colossal. Her genius in arranging simple elements of wood, fabric, light and body is surpassed only by her imagination to utilize theatrical devices, like the aforementioned commedia del arte masks, that would seem jarringly out of place were they not so appropriate for the given moment. It is the kind of creative autuerism usually reserved for the museum or art-house cinema, and too rarely seen on stages around the DC area. Randall, who also serves as scenic, props, and costume designer, is aided by partners-in-poetry Kristin Thompson as lighting designer, and Neil McFadden as sound designer.
The three speaking witches, Lakeisha Raquel Harrison (Witch 1), Vivian Allvin (Witch 2), and Tara Cariaso (Witch 3), all have moments where they individually shine.
For Lakeisha Racquel Harrison it is undoubtedly Scene 9: Four Times, where she plays an African mother whose daughter (Tara Cariaso) has gone missing but, miraculously, returned to her by foreign human-rights workers. However, although she is physically returned to her, her “moon child” is different. She is violent, hostile, un-feeling. Her mother curses her, not understanding the obvious trauma that has occurred. She trades her daughter back to the men who stole her for a pair of red flip flops. As Harrison slowly circles the stage in her long black head scarf, her dramatic power cuts at the heart.
For Vivian Allvin it is Scenes 1, 4, and 10 as the titular Cenicienta. The contrast between Allvin’s bright dreams of a fairy tale future and the reality of her forced labor and ultimate expulsion is heartbreaking.
She brings an innocence and joy that drives home the moral outrage perpetrated against girls across the world.
For Tara Cariaso, who has a strong background in physical theatre and commedia, her shining moment is, not surprisingly, Scene 3: Swimming in the Afternoon, where her outrageous commedia physicality is jarringly offset by the genuine cruelty she inflicts on her maybe-daughter in the form of an unwanted triplets pregnancy.
Witches Vanish is not a biography of a few missing women. It is not a sentimental call to action against the global phenomenon of missing and displaced persons. Rather, it is a meditation on the idea of disappearance itself. What does it mean for a woman to “vanish” in body or soul? And how do we collectively create the conditions for women to vanish, whether through global capitalist exploitation or sexual objectification, only to appear shocked and appalled when horrible things finally do happen?
Ahead of a long autumn where dozens of DC theatres will claim to stage shows that give voice to women, it is heartening that Venus has begun the festival with a show that explores so deeply and so gracefully, in ways that only live theatre can, just how women are able to speak when given the chance.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.