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David Eshelman's new play, subtitled "a quasi historical spectacle, an abuse of great literature, an aspiring political tract, a comedy that ought not to be," is one of the funniest shows I've seen. When I first read its description, I knew I had to see it. Masterfully directed by Steven Samuels who is also the company's Artistic Director, the play careens through history, plays fast and loose with fictional and historical characters, and playfully romps on any sensibility one can possibly have. The story turns on the quest for Croatoan (the enigmatic word carved on a tree on Roanoke Island left by colonists who disappeared), here a place of refuge sought by witches who can unlock the door to the place if they achieve a quorum of 4. It is a show for those "mature audiences" who can laugh at the (de)ranged human condition in all its magnificence.
The superbly balanced cast transported us to Jamestown 1617 where we encounter Mistress Hibbins, witch-lady (Tracey Johnston-Crum) and wife of a deceased governor; Cassy, a feisty slave-woman (Steph Anie) who is the resentful mistress of her white master Simon La Fleurette; Ayacanora, an Indian princess (Lisa M. Smith) who is forced into an outrageous impersonation; and Pocahontas, whose persona is that of a Valley-Girl-talking diva returning from England in English dress to launch her "North America tour" but who is stalled by a "coma aloha." On the same boat with Pocahontas is Freelove Harrington (Lucia Del Vecchio), a stiff Puritan bride for La Fleurette and conveniently prone to fainting spells. Against this formidable feminine quintet is The (hiss-able) Reverend Mr. Camden, witch-burner and firebrand preacher (Scott Fisher), brother to Mistress Hibbins. As lusty as he is sexually repressed, the hilarious narrative writ large of his sexual entanglements is one of the most delicious parts of the show.
The imaginative stew of fact and fiction creates the perfect platform for comedy where nothing is sacred. The chronicle includes lesbian couplings, lust-filled gropings, improbable disguises, hilarious soliloquies, uproarious one-liners, and surprising familial relationships as Camden works to burn witches while they plot their journey to safety. Virginia Dare, first settler born in the New World, makes brief appearances as a hand puppet who mouths encouragement to the witches. Though comic, the show's underlying manifesto against oppression, violence, and bigotry packs its own unmistakable punch.
The Magnetic Field lives up to its branding as one of America's "most inventive and audacious theatrical troupes, and a groundbreaking leader in the development and production of the nation's new plays." They have embraced as their home a space in the revitalized Riverfront District which includes a hip and sophisticated bar and café with excellent food (oh, those crab cakes!). I am still laughing and can't remember when I've had a more enjoyable evening out.
Note: This play runs through 6/25. For details, see the sidebar.