In 1999, living in Denmark, I happened upon Terry Pratchett’s novel Wyrd Sisters on a friend’s bookshelf. I opened it up and saw “the night was as black as the inside of a cat” – a line that immediately became, and remains, my favorite sentence of all time. So it was with some excitement that I learned that the MAD club at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center was putting on the play from that novel, adapted for the stage by Stephen Briggs.
Directed by Jon Gardner, the play includes the joyful word play that makes Terry Pratchett so delightful. Wyrd Sisters tells of three witches and their efforts to meddle – without really meddling – in the affairs of the kingdom of Lancre after the King is murdered and the throne usurped. And the MAD players keep the rollicking play crackling along like lightning.
There is no stage for this production; the action takes place on the floor. No matter where you sit, at some point actors will be facing you and at another point they may well have their backs to you; this is a play which uses all 360 degrees. Because there’s no stage, there’s no set. Instead, the scene changes – and there are a lot of them, twenty-two! – are done with props and a large screen TV on one wall providing images of the settings. A wheeled cart is a table for a magic ball in one scene and a cauldron for another; the throne room is created by a chair with a golden cushion upon it. These prop-driven scenes work; the setting for each scene is clear and the changes between them happen quickly.
Linda Pattison as Nanny Ogg is inspired. Terry Pratchett fans know Nanny Ogg as a joyful, rosy-cheeked, rogue; Pattison plays her with gusto. I could easily believe Pratchett met Pattison and then developed Nanny Ogg based on that meeting, so perfect was she for the role. She is particularly amusing when being threatened with torture; she delivers her cheeky lines with a twinkle in her eye that would have made Pratchett proud.
The play’s villains are the Duke and Duchess Felmet, played by John McCloskey and Cathy Barth respectively. McCloskey does a terrific Nixon impersonation and gets the audience squirming in their seats as he tries – in increasingly dramatic measures – to wash the blood off his hands. Barth is a stand-out as the Duchess. She’s one to watch – her facial expressions as the Duke talks are hilarious, and she is able to convey with body language alone frustration, anger, and despair.
The youngest cast member, Clara Holland, plays the demon. Here the marriage of excellent costume, make-up, and special effects are on display; the demon arises in a cloud of fog, delivers a few lines with great drama, and descends again to – on the two nights I saw the show – applause from the audience.
The real show stealer, however, has no lines. Marie Nearing as Greebo the cat is without question the stand out performance of the play, and it’s worth going to the show twice just so that one time can be spent watching what old Greebo gets up in each of her scenes. From coughing up a hairball to batting at audience members’ shoes to catching a mouse, Nearing does an incredible feline performance that is entertaining, amazingly accurate, and frankly riveting.
Without a traditional set, costumes, make-up, sound, and special effects take on increased importance and the designers of these elements meet the challenge. Special effects and sound, designed by Steve Beitzell, and managed by Kathryn Breon for the performances, create ambience and, of course, the magic used by the witches. Along with the smoky demon, there are flames, flashes, bangs, and an earthquake. Make-up and costumes capture time, place, and characters beautifully. Pattison as make-up designer does a stand-out job; of particular note is her work in creating the demon, the cat, and the ever-increasing blood on the Duke’s hands.
Costume Designer Susan Neff has helped create the characters – the matching gold regal robes for the Duke and Duchess, the inspired (in so many ways) Greebo, the ghastly horns for the demon. The wildly different personalities of the three witches are enhanced by their clothing; Nanny Ogg’s are purple-themed and boisterous; Granny Weatherwax wears the black hat and dress of the “traditional” witch from our childhood imaginations; Magrit Garlick wears a variety of dresses, all with a hint of green, the kind of dresses a young woman from a certain time might wear…
Wyrd Sisters plays at MAD through May 21, 2016 at MAD performing at Rge Goddard Space Flight Center’s Rec Center- 8800 Greenbelt Road, in Greenbelt, MD. Remaining performances are this Friday and Saturday, May 13th and 14th at 8pm; Sunday the 15th at 3 pm, and the following Friday and Saturday, May 20th and 21st at 8 pm. The gate to the rec center opens 45 minutes before the show begins. For tickets, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.
Kyla Hanington is a writer and speaker whose work has appeared in magazines and newspapers such as University Affairs, Mothering, HipMama, the Greenbelt News Review, the Terrace Standard, and the Clackamas Literary Review, among others. Her essays have also been broadcast on Drum: A Literary Magazine for Your Ears and on CBC Radio. She currently lives in Greenbelt with her two children, two cats, and very patient husband.