Broomstick’s rhyming ride

Vana O'Brien plays a crone with a tale to tell in Artists Rep's incantatory solo show "Broomstick"

You can build a poem, or even a play, on a rhyming couplet. Stretched somewhere between speaking and singing, it’s also something of an incantation. Keep it going for ninety minutes nonstop, as John Biguenet’s play Broomstick does, and it’s a downright spell.

Broomstick, which opened on Halloween at Artists Repertory Theatre and sweeps around the stage until close to Thanksgiving, is a solo play about a crone living in an herb-strewn cottage somewhere in the deep woods of the American South: a wrinkled, bent, and cackly figure, straddling the gap between Foxfire folklore and the Brothers Grimm.

Vana O'Brien's sweet old lady ...

Vana O’Brien’s sweet old lady …

Portland veteran Vana O’Brien stirs the pot as the witch in question, measuring vials of vengeance, cunning, wit, and memory into the cauldron, which bubbles over with the question: Is she, or isn’t she? An actual witch, that is. O’Brien, and Biguenet, never do say outright, although the answer, if there is one, depends in large part on the answer to yet another question: What’s a witch, anyway?

And the answer to that one spins through a web of collective memory, through fears of the supernatural and the merely eccentric, of castoffs and dabblers in earth-powers, of the line between cunning and off-her-bentwood-rocker: at what point does the different become dangerous?

O’Brien has great fun with this poison-apple granny of a role, holding the stage alone, inviting an invisible visitor to sit down for a cup of tea and a talk about old times. Biguenet’s script iambic-pentameters swiftly along, creating sly twists on Hansel and Gretel and other dark old tales: mere misunderstandings, O’Brien insists, little pots assuming the kettle’s black. Dressed in layers of exotic homespun, she assumes the classic storyteller’s role, spinning away gaily, stopping and starting, linking and forgetting, and gradually, gradually, dropping into dark places, which she then insists are not so dark, no, no, she’s only fooling, only playing a game. Still, we feel, something happened down in those dark places, even if it might not’ve played out exactly the way she says. What’s love got to do with it? Quite a lot, it seems. The words “lost” and “unrequited” suggest themselves.

... with a harrowing history ...

… with a harrowing history …

Artists Rep has poured most of its attention this fall into Cuba Libre, the big new musical playing at the Winningstad Theatre, and you might think Broomstick is the lighter end of the balancing stick, a simple little solo show that can be tossed onstage without a lot of muss or fuss. But one-actor shows are notoriously difficult to pull off, and a lot of care has gone into this one. O’Brien and director Gemma Whelan have worked hard to follow the rhythm and lilt of the language without letting it devolve into singsong, and to rise and fall with the natural flow of the tale. And the show’s a glory to look at, with Kristeen Willis Crosser’s towering, twig-and-vial-decorated set (Amy Katrina Bryan is props master), Gregory Pulver’s trance-like costumes, Ashley Hardy’s cronetastic hair and makeup design, K. Franklin Porter’s fiber art, and Carl Faber’s candle-wattage lighting design. Rodolfo Ortega’s sound design pelts and rattles subtly in the background, closing in on things and moving where the wild thoughts are.

Vengeance may be the lord’s, as the good book says, but cross a line in Broomstick and there’ll be hell to pay. Or O’Brien’s witch, the meter-out of harsh and deeply human judgment and justice. As Nina Simone so eloquently moaned, “I Put a Spell On You.” And, yes, that’s something like a hex.

... and a cutting edge. Photos: Owen Carey

… and a cutting edge. Photos: Owen Carey


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