BWW Reviews: In BROOMSTICK, Jenny O'Hara Brilliantly Takes You Through the Dark Memories Of A Lonely Old Witch
Thanks to brilliant set designed by Andrew Hammer and set dresser Misty Carlisle, when you walk into the Fountain Theater you are immediately thrown into the ornate and foreboding cottage of the Witch portrayed with great gusto by Jenny O'Hara in BROOMSTICK. There are lots of candles, old wood furniture, a boiling cauldron in the wood burning fireplace, herbs hanging on the ceiling, jars of insects on the desk, and remnants of food on a chopping board. I also noticed small children's books decorating the dining table, perhaps left over from Hansel and Gretel's visit or waiting for the next lost child to be rescued, needing a hot meal, warm bed, and some love. An owl hoots and the wind blows, setting the Halloween spirit alive before we ever meet the Witch who sits in the rocking chair center stage.
And then out of the darkness, Jenny O'Hara appears and immediately the wickedly entertaining, spine-chilling West Coast premiere of BROOMSTICK by John Biguenet takes off for about an hour and a half of sheer delight - a funny, poignant and "spell" binding tale about the magic of the human heart.
Set in Appalachia and written entirely in verse, Biguenet's charming and mesmerizing solo play introduces us to a wacky, bizarre old woman living in an odd little shack deep in the woods... who just happens to be a witch. Creepily funny and frightening, Jenny O'Hara takes us back to our childhoods when, in our innocence, we first wrestled with good and evil. As she unveils her life, we journey with her down a shadowy path somewhere between our material world and the realm of fantasy. But we soon find out this is no Hansel and Gretel fairytale; in BROOMSTICK, justice has been meted out swiftly and harshly by the Witch during her entire lifetime.
"In the course of this crazy old lady's attempt to explain and justify herself to an unexpected visitor, certain truths come out," says Sachs. "It's up to the audience to decide how much is fact and how much is imagined - and to what extent all of our realties are influenced by what is in our heads and in our hearts."
At first I did not even realize the text was entirely in verse, such was O'Hara's overwhelming presence. And I wondered to whom she was telling her tales - was an audience member supposed to be answering her questions or was she seeing an imaginary visitor from her past, perhaps a grown-up child who ran away from her years ago now back to make amends. You never really know if the visitor is real or just imagined in her mind, but it is of no matter. The play doesn't settle for just entertaining; with O'Hara's brilliant performance the show shocks with moments of unexpected insight about what goes on in the mind of a Witch.
At times, Jenny O'Hara's Witch seems to be a misunderstood soul, but then again as she describes her lifelong dealings with people who deserve her wrath, what happens to them can only be described as revenge driven witchcraft. Varying her delivery from kindly and sincere old woman to the screaming wronged banshee out for revenge, O'Hara pulls you into her past wrongs, illuminated through shifts to cool blue light thanks to lighting designer Jennifer Edwards.
Director Stephen Sachs has twice won the LA Ovation Award for Best Director of a Play and has been twice nominated for the SDC Zelda Fichandler Award, recognizing an outstanding director who is making a unique and exceptional contribution to theatre in their region. He co-founded The Fountain Theatre with Deborah Lawlor in 1990, and his play, "Bakersfield Mist" which he directed at the Fountain starring Jenny O'Hara and Nick Ullett, recently completed a successful run in London's West End with Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid.
In BROOMSTICK, Sachs and O'Hara have worked together brilliantly to fully utilize every nook and cranny of the gloomy yet enchanting set. O'Hars has been set free to fully utilize her marvelous range of emotions as she recounts the life and struggles of this lonely old Witch, sharing memories of wrongs done and retaliations put into place.
That's not to say she does not regret her actions at times. Perhaps turning the ocean into a hurricane to revenge the death of her one true love, causing the death of many innocent people, was not her best moment. But surely we can understand her wrath, losing Jimmy, her lifelong friend and first love, when his boat capsized, can't we? O'Hara conveys all the sorrow, anger, as well as the wonder of the Witch's first overwhelming sexual encounter, that we can certainly understand her need to lash out at the natural world after it took her only chance at happiness from her.
One of the most attention-getting stories involves the time the young Witch caught her own father in bed with the beautiful blond-haired and blue-eyed town harlot Jane Jackson, and the revenge most enthusiastically yet innocuously accomplished by the clever Witch on he girl who had "the morals of an alley cat." The fact she got away with murder seemed very matter of fact, thanks to O'Hara's snide smile and cackle as she related the story. Truly revenge is a dish best served cold... surrounded by flickering candles, a boiling cauldron, and a very clever Witch.
BROOMSTICK continues through Nov. 30, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., except Friday, Oct. 31, when audience members are invited to "trick or treat" in costume at the Fountain with an early curtain at 6 p.m. Tickets are $20 when purchased in advance (reserved seating) or $15 at the door subject to availability. The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Avenue (at Normandie) in Los Angeles. Secure, on-site parking is available for $5. The Fountain Theatre is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. For reservations and information, call 323-663-1525 or go to www.FountainTheatre.com.
All photos of Jenny O'Hara by Ed Krieger