Backyard Renaissance brings a scary good time to the Tenth Avenue Arts Center with the world premiere of WITCHLAND playing through December 11th. When a family moves to Richland, Washington thanks to a new job opportunity what they find there quickly turns any dreams of a quiet life in the country into a nightmare. This show wants its audience to scream with laughter and terror as the events of the show reveal themselves.
WITCHLAND takes on the ambitious task of creating a horror theatrical experience with the play. This is a notoriously tricky genre for live theatre, but Backyard Renaissance is finding creative and immersive ways to offer the audience some scary surprises.
Ali (Amira Temple), and her two dads, Van (Daren Scott) and Jared (Christopher Louie Szabo) find themselves moving from the city of Seattle to the much more remote city of Richland when Jared is offered a high-paying job. The town offers them a chance to purchase a home, a chance to relax and play along a beautiful river, it also just happens to be by the resident nuclear power plant, and also maybe home to a witch.
As the three adjust to their new home, Ali starts to notice some of the people in town seem to be acting strange. Sometimes they come around to her neighbor’s house across the way but she doesn’t know why. One new school friend Shannon (Kay Marian McNellen) warns Ali away and cautions her that under no circumstances should she touch the sticks that are set up in front of the neighbor’s house.
As the story builds, and as Ali, Van, and Jared each experience different things they start to wonder if maybe some of those stories might be true after all. Is it supernatural, just their imagination running away from them, or is there radiation from the plant that’s somehow impacting what they think is happening?
Temple is strong as a smart and resourceful teenager who is not going to let the people she loves go down without a fight. Scott as Van is very funny as the bored “house husband” he’s become in this town, and also uses that humor to confront their scary neighbor to try to find some common ground. Szabo is charming and rational as Jared, which makes the character’s sudden change in behavior that much more concerning.
There isn’t much more that can be said without spoiling the story, which unfurls and builds the suspense layer by layer. The cast is strong and they all play their roles well, maybe too well judging by the screams coming from the audience all around me.
The rest of the cast includes Marcel Ferrin, Dagmar Krause Fields, Kaivan Mohsenzadeh, Kate Rose Reynolds, Markuz Rodriguez, and Liliana Talwatte.
Most impressive of all is how director Andrew Oswald keeps the tension building and then uses the humor to both relieve the pressure, and build more connection with these characters, before ratcheting the tension back up. There is an excellent use of physicality; twitching, contorting, and even full-body contact that is deployed as events escalate.
Written by Tim Mulligan, the play is a blend of family drama, and humor before the true danger starts to descend. There is a genuine warmth and humor to the family banter, and the story builds well in 90 minutes. It would be nice if there was a bit more information on the main villain – their motivation seems a bit muddled and could use a little more actual substance. This would also help clarify the actions taken to try to undo what was happening to those affected.
The atmosphere as you walk into the theatre sets the scene and by the time you get to your seat, you know this isn’t going to be your normal theatre-going experience. The set by Tony Cucuzzella fits the space really well and allows for a lot of mysterious comings and goings from all over the theatre.
Costumes by Faith A. James, lighting design by Lorrena Harvey, and sound design by George Ye, all work well together to build the world.
The fright and haunt coordination by Jeffrey Neitzel is especially effective and had many gasping whiles also leaning forward in their chair waiting to see what happens next.
WITCHLAND by Backyard Renaissance succeeds in its goal to frighten and be funny and offers a unique theatre experience. For full disclosure I am a horror fan, the show may vary for you based on your preferences.
There are two seating options All-Scare and Scaredy-Cat seating – based on what you think will work best for you. Just whatever you do…. don’t touch the sticks
How To Get Tickets
WITCHLAND by Backyard Renaissance is playing through December 11th at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center. For ticket and showtime information go to www.backyardrenaissance.com
All audience members are required to show proof of vaccine or a negative COVID test (not to exceed three days) and be masked the entire time inside the building.