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Review: WITCHLAND at Revolution Stage Company

What did our critic think of WITCHLAND at Revolution Stage Company?

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Producing innovative, provocative work is part of the Revolution Stage Company’s DNA, so it is not surprising they chose Witchland for their first new production of 2024.

The play is, in its conception, frightening on several levels, least of all the historical fact that most of us are unaware of: an entire swath of the West was negatively affected by airborne plutonium waste resulting in cancer. It didn’t just happen in Richland, Washington, where our play is set, but in Arizona, Utah and Nevada. They were called Downwinders, and I’d put a big fat wager on the fact that most of you reading this never knew. Me either.

But it’s true. Many aspects of the play, including the witch, were part of playwright Tim Mulligan’s life. He grew up in Richland. Surrounding legends also play into the script.

The dialogue can be quite witty, and there’s definitely a creep factor. You’re not even quite sure what’s causing the creep, is it plutonium sickness, or the damn witch? And the damn witch is everywhere, I tell you, everywhere!

The play starts before it starts with the Hanford Tour Guide (Isaac Gaeta-Tollette) in a hazmat suit explaining the rules of our tour of the nuclear facility. It’s a fun start, with Gaeta-Tollette keeping it upbeat while also putting us in the mood for a scare.

The play opens with a tipsy young couple, Shannon (Sarah Woolsey) being unknowingly led by her date, Brett (Christopher Lopez) to the “infamous” witch’s house of Richland. He dares her to knock over the pyramid of sticks that is always in front of her home. The town lore is if you knock them down, they will appear in the same formation shortly after, without human assistance. If you take a stick, bad things befall you. We learn more about the history of the town, and the witch (Katrina Dixon) as Brett goads Shannon into taking a stick despite everything we just learned because…teens are idiots, I guess. It sets the tone for the spookfest ahead.

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Brent Anderson, Jason Reale and Tiffany Johnson in Revolution Stage Company’s production of Witchland. Credit: Jim Cox

Our story starts with Jared (Jason Reale) telling his husband Van (Brent Anderson), and their adopted Black teenage daughter, Ali (Tiffany Johnson) that they are moving to Richland. And then they do. (In my opinion, this scene is unnecessary, everything we learn here is repeated later in the play.)

What happens after that is a bit of a fever dream. Literally, there’s a fever dream in the play with faceless people, and cult-y, satanic ‘ish’ going on. And from the get go, the radioactivity is in your ears, creating an annoyance of buzzing in your head.  Creepy stuff.

Although it was workshopped to some great success in San Diego, this production feels like it missed some great opportunities to up the scare factor. Director Richard S. Blake seems to have underused the theatre’s capabilities, as well as the designers.

Mariah Pryor, a creative and reliable light designer, gave us a design that is often so dimly lit you could take a nap. And the lights themselves could have been used to great effect throughout the play, a missed opportunity to really bring home the scare factor.

Rodney Dobbs’ set design obscures some of the creep factor for the witch, and was, for the sake of this play, an odd layout. Had the kitchen been beneath the “witch’s window” it would have allowed us to see more of the witch’s antics when she makes her ghostly appearances.

Laura Stearns created possibly the creepiest thing I have ever seen manufactured with just the use of fabric. Super creative and creepy; something similar would have worked well for the witch, and is the type of creativity this play warrants.

Emma Bibo’s costumes were okay, although the dress they put Shannon in at the start of the play was very very short, and even in the darkness the audience in the front rows get a bit too much of a view. We become unwitting voyeurs, we’re supposed to look, but that seems impolite. Costumes should not take you out of the moment.

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Witchland is heading off-Broadway next, and if Mulligan & the producing company get it right, it could find its audience and enjoy a very nice run. People love getting spooked, and while this version absolutely has a creep factor, it could be an awful lot creepier.

If you like scary stuff, I will tell you that the audience did some screaming, and Frankie (who I met at intermission) – a grown man with a love of the spooky – was genuinely, adorably energized by the fright factor. So, if that’s you, don’t sleep on this.

Keep in mind it’s Mulligan’s first play, and still green. Nothing that a few cuts and changes couldn’t remedy, and I hope that happens. There are only a handful of horror plays out there, and this is an exceptionally creative concept. And it has all the hallmarks of a scary movie: a spooky back story, laughs, it’s bloody, and it all comes to a crazy supernatural ending. It just needs love and guidance from an “outside of the box” visionary to give it the production values it needs to pull it off.

Production partner Gary Powers recently said of Witchland in an interview, “[A scary play] may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but presenting something new and different in the Valley is part of our mission.” With the immersive scare factor in Witchland, they have absolutely achieved that goal.

Witchland written by Tim Mulligan is at Revolution Stage Company through March 2, 2024

*Photo credit: Jim Cox

Cast:
Isaac Gaeta Tollette – Hanford Tour Guide/Hazmat Worker/Ensemble
Katrina Dixon – The Witch/Judith James
Christopher Lopez – Brett
Sarah Woolsey – Shannon
Tiffany Johnson – Ali
Jason Rale – Jared
Brent Anderson – Van
Candace Coe – Young Witch/Young Judith
Arianna Goodwin – Hazmat Worker/Ensemble
Zoe Sanchez – Hazmat Worker/Ensemble

Production Team:
Gary Powers – Producer
James Owens – Producer
Richard S. Blake – Director
Laura Stearns – Production Coordinator
Kudra Wagner – Production Stage Manager

Designers:
Mariah Pryor – Lighting Design
Rodney Dobbs – Set Design
Damian Mercado – Sound Design
Emma Bibo – Costumer

Tech:
Kelly McGuire – Sound Engineer
Zoe Sanchez – Assistant PSM
Heather Joy – Tech Operator
Miguel Lauro – Set Construction

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