When I attended Dark of the Moon at Level Ground Arts I didn’t realize what was waiting for me. The idea, a Witch Boy falls in love with a mortal woman ala Romeo and Juliet, had me expecting romance. I’m not sure if Shakespeare’s story of star-crossed lovers unhinged by feuding families served as paradigm here, so much as a jumping-off point. While there is intensity and passion, Dark of the Moon doesn’t feel romantic. And here’s the kicker. You keep getting the impression they’re misfiring. Or, at the very least, their choices seem confusing. Then all of a sudden, it fits. The narrative takes a quantum leap and bizarre details make sense. DOTM’s depiction of mountain culture and the supernatural seems to vacillate between the poetic and the pejorative. The show is informed by folklore from a society that has roots in the fanciful, and though some characters self-identify as Christians, their practice of that religion sometimes verges on the primal. You never see them handling snakes or speaking in tongues, but you wouldn’t put it past them.
The witch people that inhabit Dark of the Moon are not Wiccans or Pagans that practice benevolent or innocuous worship in coexistence with other religions. It seems to me DOTM is a very careful sort of allegory. While Witch Boy’s people seem sinister, they don’t give the impression they’re out to destroy humanity. There are some keen, well-chosen special effects. They are magical folk who can ride the backs of eagles and cast spells. They’re a bit off-putting, but they don’t seem harmful. When Witch Boy seeks out Conjur Man to forfeit his enchanted birth rite, the elder suspects he only seeks what he can’t have. That he is drawn to a kind of beauty unavailable to sorcerers and others of their ilk. For all their creepy, clandestine behavior, when Witch Boy’s consorts extol the dark adventure possible only for the immortal, you get a tingle.
Once Witch Boy assumes his human identity as John, he crashes a dance and makes his move for Barbara Allen. Marvin Hudgins, clearly sweet on her, tries to pick a fight, but loses when John summons his powers. Barbara Allen, already impressed with the stranger’s attractiveness and exotic demeanor, runs off with John, leaving Marvin to lick his wounds. Barbara Allen comes from a small, deeply religious Christian community in the Smoky Mountains. She is already an outcast because she hasn’t yet married and isn’t ashamed to “pleasure herself.” This is a key to Dark of the Moon’s logic, I think.
While John (Witch Boy) seems almost hostile and the citizens of Buck Creek genuinely caring, they still have their pettiness and ignorance. It’s fair to imagine some audience members will assume that Christians always start from a preponderance of love, but this notion is turned on its ear, despite the deep divide between John’s people and Barbara Allen’s. Even though a transformation in John has begun, he can never enter a church, and a primordial rift between Christians and witches is implied. In a sense, both Barbara and John dwell the fringes of their cultures, because they have little use for restraints and taboos.
Dark of the Moon is a richly involving, startling, compelling drama (interwoven with lively hymns and folk music) that challenges our preconceived notions about romance, virtue, true charity, and the distinction between raw spiritual longing and religion as means of oppression. The more you partake of a medium, the less often you’re surprised, and happily, I doubt I could have felt more caught out, moved and saddened by this show. They seem to stack the deck, and yet, like the predictions of the three witches in Macbeth, nothing is really like it seems. And it’s not like they’re pulling doves and flowers from a flaming hoop. They come by their revelations honestly.
It helps to think of Dark of the Moon as a fable or Mystery play. The plot feels very simple and differences between the benign and vindictive seem so obvious. Dark of the Moon has subtle, complicated things to say about the nature of connection and contempt, and the way society finds to punish those who challenge its boundaries. Once again Level Ground Arts has managed to create brilliance, intelligence, enlightenment and lyricism on a shoestring, through dedication, skill and vision.
Level Ground Arts Proudly Presents: Dark of the Moon, written by Howard Richardson and William Berney, playing April 2nd through the 24th, 2010. Dallas Hub Theater. 2809 Canton Street. 1.877.238.5596. www.levelgroundarts.com