WITCHLAND stands as a memorable off-Broadway experience… – Review

SYNOPSIS: In the quaint town of Richland, Washington, Jared’s dream job at the Hanford Nuclear Site brings about an exciting change for his family. As they eagerly await their new home to be finished, they find themselves residing in temporary accommodations right across the street from a reclusive, mysterious neighbor – a witch. As a series of strange and unnerving events unfold, the family begins to question the true nature of their neighbor. Could she be a real witch, or are they merely experiencing the adverse health effects plaguing the residents living in the shadow of a place designated as “the most toxic place in the Western Hemisphere”? Welcome to the captivating town of Witchland, where the boundaries between truth and myth become blurred.

REVIEW: Playwright Tim Mulligan’s WITCHLAND is a multi-layered story of a modern American family who relocates to one of “the most toxic places in the Western Hemisphere.” The play explores whether the legend of the witch has supernatural roots or if she is merely a scapegoat for the misfortunes of the residents who have suffered from the toxic effects of the Hanford Nuclear Site. Mulligan immerses the audience in a surreal yet heartfelt semi-biographical journey.

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L to R: Dave Silberger, Mars Holscher, Geoffrey Grady. Photo by Jordan Schreiber

At the play’s core is Ali, an African-American teen, the adopted daughter of Jared and Van, a gay married couple. Despite their issues, the play emphasizes that the town of Richland lacks the diversity and community of their previous home. Mulligan infuses satire and humor into this dark narrative, addressing family issues, cursed residents, a witch’s tale, and the looming dangers of the power plant. As Ali uncovers the mystery of the witch, she matures into a responsible adult, attempting to lift the curse placed on her fathers and classmates. Mulligan crafts an impactful myth surrounding the witch, rendering the character relatable at a later point in the play. Similar to classic tween horror stories, the adults remain oblivious to the real danger, leaving Ali to step up as a reluctant hero. While Ali is the most memorable character, the supporting cast of characters is equally engaging as they grapple with the looming threats of the witch and the power plant.

The production successfully overcomes the limitations of the theater space, with director Kate Murphy skillfully staging the playwright’s vision. The action extends beyond the stage, with scenes unfolding in the audience break between sections and the back of the theater, immersing the audience in the story. Atmospheric enhancements, such as lighting, sound, and props, are used to create dreamlike sequences that, while somewhat whimsical, manage to be unsettling. These sequences, at times, directly impact the characters, adding an extra layer of tension and intrigue.

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L to R: Theresa Della Valle, Dave Silberger, Chelsea Clark. Photo by Jordan Schreiber

The limited stage and sound system were my primary sources of frustration. The witch’s yard and front door were on one side of the main stage, opposite the family’s kitchen, which restricted some of the action. The stage felt cramped and hindered the energy of several scenes when many cast members were on stage.

The production utilizes original music and sound design. However, since the actors perform without microphones, the volume of these elements is intentionally kept low, which hinders their impact and ability to create ambiance. Similarly, the set design and props are intentionally minimalistic, fulfilling only the basic requirements to support the drama. Despite these limitations, there are instances where these elements effectively contribute to unexpected and captivating moments in the story.

The cast’s performance nicely brought the characters to life, establishing a strong connection with the audience. Mars Holscher’s portrayal of Ali added a “Nancy Drew” quality to the character, creating a charming and memorable performance. Dave Silberger and Geoffrey Grady’s performance was reminiscent of a classic comedy duo, enhanced by their contemporary edge, bringing a fresh perspective. Actress Theresa Della Valle excelled in creating a looming presence as the witch, with limited dialogue in the form of non-English chants and spells to convey her character’s mystical nature. The entire cast skillfully navigated frequent scene and costume changes, demonstrating their physical versatility. With a running time of over 90 minutes, the show demanded considerable physical exertion from the performers. I attended the second performance and there were some moments when actors appeared less comfortable in their roles, but this is likely to improve with increased familiarity with the characters.

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Nina Randazzo as Shannon and Theresa Della Valla as the Witch in a scene from Witchland. Photo credit Jordan Schreiber

With the New York production being the third staging of WITCHLAND, it’s evident that the story and staging of the play have intricate layers that are impacted by the limitations of the performance space. Mulligan’s creation features captivating locations, distinct characters, and a gripping supernatural element that actively engages the audience. By thinking beyond the confines of the stage, Mulligan successfully brings the tale closer to the audience, keeping them on the edge of their seats. The play’s diverse appeal extends to horror enthusiasts and theater lovers alike. Director Kate Murphy skillfully utilizes the spatial limitations, adding exceptional energy and atmosphere to the production. WITCHLAND stands as a memorable off-Broadway experience that leaves audiences eagerly anticipating its return for a longer run.

WITCHLAND is running April 5th, 2024 – April 14th, 2024, at the Chain Theatre, 312 W 36th Street, in New York City. Performances are Wednesday, April 10th, Thursday, April 11th, Friday, April 12th, Saturday, April 13th all at 7:00 PM, and 3:00 pm matinees on Saturday, April 13th & Sunday, April 14th. Tickets are $40.00 and can be purchased online HERE.

Review By: Joseph B Mauceri

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