- Greggory Moore
A witch boy from the mountain came,
A-pinin’ to be human,
Fer he had met the fairest gal
A gal named Barbara Allen
The opening stanza of the “The Ballad of Barbara Allen” (more on which anon) sets the scene for Dark of the Moon, an Appalachian gothic tale about a mountain-dwelling witch boy who romanticizes the human life he espies down in the valley. Then one night he meets (Biblically speaking) Barbara, and nothing will do but to git himself transformed into one of ‘er kind. The only catch is that she has to marry him and stay true for a full year; otherwise, it’s back up the mountain, boy.
Howard Richardson & William Berney’s 1945 re-conception and adaptation of “The Ballad of Barbara Allen”, a centuries-old Scottish folk song that makes no mention of witchcraft, is short on plot, but that’s not much of a drawback for Elysium Conservatory Theatre (ECT), because their focus is elsewhere. Back in April they savaged the script of Romeo and Juliet—which, like all Shakespeare, has plot coming out its ears—to create a piece that was more visceral than verbal, full of dance and music and immersion. They hit the mark well enough then, and they do so again with Dark of the Moon, once again relying primarily on strong staging and the cast’s overflowing energy.
I did not see anything ECT did prior to moving into the elegant building that formerly housed San Pedro’s landmark Ante’s Restaurant (Romeo and Juliet was their first show in what we’re now simply calling “the Elysium Conservatory Theatre”), but it’s hard for me to imagine ECT doing work anywhere else, so effectively do they explore the possibilities innate to this quasi-labyrinthine structure. For Dark of the Moon director Aaron Ganz puts his cast through the paces in no less than four separate physical spaces, including one that’s outdoors, one that plays at alternate ends of the large main room (with the audience seated in the middle and turning 180 degrees as the scene shifts ground), and one that is largely reconfigured when the audience enters it for a second time. Playing out such possibilities requires multiple sound and lighting set-ups and not a little stage managing, and the effort is evident in the results.
The actors’ effort is even more obvious. This is a troupe that’s long on physicality, and I’m betting that cumulatively the cast drops a few pounds of water weight during each ECT performance. In Dark of the Moon no-one exemplifies this better than Justin Powell, who works up a sweat during his first five minutes onstage with all the idiosyncratic hopping and self-slapping he does while still a witch boy. But there isn’t a cast member who would fail to meet his/her Fitbit numbers here. Movement is an ECT super strength. If you don’t like an ECT show, it’s never going to be because it’s too static.
The possible downside to so much energy onstage all the time is that it doesn’t leave a lot of room for nuance in the acting. That’s partly by design: this simply isn’t a show with a lot of intimacy. Moreover, the acting talent across the board is clearly superior to many casts populating far more conventional and intimate storytelling. But if you’re looking for an attempt at the sort of performance that garners Tony nominations, this isn’t it. Dark of the Moon is more theatrical experience than theatre. (Admittedly, it’s a fuzzy line, but my drawing it should give you at least a vague sense of what to expect.)
That said, the amp isn’t always cranked up to 11. ECT excels at going over the top, filling up their big theatrical spaces to the brim with big voices and gestures, but they have enough savvy to go quiet and still in order to produce maximum effect when less is more. A childbirthing scene is a highlight here, performed as a silent, slo-mo tableau vivant set to an effectively chosen piece of contemporary music (sounds like Kate Bush, but isn’t), breaking into a real-time eruption of sound with impeccable timing.
Maybe the most striking aspect of ECT’s Dark of the Moon is patience. In Ganz’s hands, the company isn’t even a little afraid of long stretches that serve no purpose other than to immerse us in the milieu of early-20th-century life in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains. Barbara’s family sharing a jar of their home-brewed mountain dew with the local preacher (Ganz, who excels in the role) is of no dramatic consequence, but it helps us feel like a fly on the wall getting an up-close eyeful of rural life. Later we’re actually in the pews with the town folk (ECT loves to invent ways to incorporate the audience into the action), a feeling underlined by the fact that we sing (complete with actual hymnals!) a full three songs with the congregation before the dramatic action recommences. There’s real courage in choices like this, because you’re betting on your ability to create an environment that will keep your audience engaged while the plot is on hold. ECT wins that bet.
Personally, my main entry point into theatre is the script. I favor the intellectual over the sensual. Works that rely more on impression and immersion (“theatrical experiences”) are not typically my bag. Dark of the Moon is more or less such a work. Nevertheless, through conceptual detail and sheer gusto ECT managed to keep even the likes of me entertained. So if you’re inclined toward this kind of show, you’ll almost certainly get more than your money’s worth. But one thing’s for sure: there’s nobody else doing this kind of thing on this scale ’round these parts. That alone means you might want to check out what’s happening in the Elysium.
DARK OF THE MOON ELYSIUM CONSERVATORY THEATRE • 729 S PALOS VERDES ST • SAN PEDRO 90731 • 424.535.7333 • FEARLESSARTISTS.ORG • FRI-SAT 8PM; SUN 7PM • $10–$25 • THROUGH AUGUST 27
(Photo credit: Louella Boquiren)