Review: ‘Dark of the Moon’ at The Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, NJ

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A multi-level set of wooden platforms and beams, crates and barrels, chopped birch logs and an axe, a butter churn, milk can, and a jug of corn whisky thrust you into the rustic world of Appalachia. But there is more going on here than just the old-fashioned natural life in the mountains. Glowing bottles of many colors, a conjuring stick, patches of fog, flashes of lightning, and the hair-raising sounds of screeching birds and thunder evoke the eerie realm of hoodoo in The Ritz Theatre Company’s haunting production of Dark of the Moon, masterfully directed and designed by Bruce A. Curless, with expressive lighting by Jen Donsky and sound by Matthew Gallagher and Pat DeFusco.

Aneesa Neibauer (Dark Witch), Hannah Hammel (Fair Witch), and Timothy Jackson (Conjure Man). Photo by Jen Donsky.
Aneesa Neibauer (Dark Witch), Hannah Hammel (Fair Witch), and Timothy Jackson (Conjure Man). Photo by Jen Donsky.

The popular 17th-century Scottish “Ballad of Barbara Allen” provided the inspiration for Howard Richardson and William Berney’s 1942 play, which retells the tragic story of love, betrayal, and death within the context of American witch-lore, brought to the region by its early Scotch-Irish and African-American settlers. Presented as a supernatural “legend with songs” (as it was advertised for its original Broadway run in 1945), the show is punctuated with downhome Smokey Mountain folk music (including “John Henry,” “Down in the Valley,” and “On Top of Old Smokey,”) and fervent Southern Gospel church music (“Old-Time Religion,” “Lonesome Valley,” and “No, Never Alone”), sung by the holy-roller mountaineers and played by them with gusto on banjo, fiddle, and guitar, tambourine and piano.

Sarah Spangenberg and Connor McElwee lead a terrific 23-member cast as the moon-crossed lovers Barbara Allen and John–a witch-boy who yearns to become human so that he can marry the mortal woman he adores and live happily ever after. He appeals to the Conjure Man, who refers him to the Conjure Woman (the excellent Timothy Jackson and Susan Dewey); she agrees to grant his wish, under the condition that the lusty Barbara (prone to “pleasurin’ herself” with men) must remain faithful to John for one full year or he will revert back to his true identity.

Though Barbara and John are happy, their relationship is thwarted on her side by the meddling of the superstitious townsfolk (with an especially funny portrayal of the dentally-challenged Uncle Smelicue by Alan Krier), her concerned parents (well-acted by J.J. Van Name and Glen Funkhouser), and the hypocritical Preacher Haggler (played with passion by DeFusco), who quotes Scripture to justify his drinking (“If Jesus turned water into wine, why shouldn’t we do the same with our corn?”) and leads an increasingly zealous revival meeting to a shockingly sinful conclusion.

John’s occult circle also schemes to put an end to both his marriage and his life as a human, as the jealous Dark and Fair Witches (Aneesa Neibauer and Hannah Hammel), lurk, jeer, and attempt to lure him back, with echoing voices and wildly provocative crawling, crouching, and enticing movements. Their scene-stealing appearances recall the ‘weird sisters’ of Macbeth, as they lead the forces of evil against the God-fearing ‘good’ people of the town and the church, but wreak no more havoc than they do.

The script is written in an Appalachian dialect and the entire ensemble consistently affects the distinctive speech pattern with precision. Costumes by Luis Cruz define the characters and establish the setting, with plaid shirts, blue jeans, overalls, and suspenders for the men; worn-out black boots and calico dresses for the women; ragged robes for the conjurers; and darkly seductive attire for the scantily clad witches.

The Ensemble. Photo by Jen Donsky.
The Ensemble. Photo by Jen Donsky.

Everything about the Ritz’s Dark of the Moon–from the direction to the design to the music and the acting–is thoroughly spell-binding!

Running Time: Two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.

Dark of the Moon plays through Sunday, March 20, 2016, at The Ritz Theatre Company – 915 White Horse Pike, in Haddon Township, NJ. For tickets, call the box office at (856) 858-5230 or purchase them online.