Elizabeth McGuire responds to The Witch of St. Elmora Street

Photo credit: Bryan Berrios
L-R: Vanessa Koppel, Chris Dunlop*, Caitlin Zoz, Chinaza Uche*, Nicole Pursell, Nathaniel Peart

Walking into the Access Theatre to see The Witch of St. Elmora Street (written by Joey Merlo, directed by Emylin Kowaleski) was like walking into a complete time warp. Expecting to see a “set,” and walking into a fluorescent back-yard, (complete with mismatched plastic picnic chairs, broken tomato planters, rosaries, wooden graves, and cigarette butts), was amazing. I mean this wasn’t a set: it was an overgrown back yard, built so close to the audience that I felt, sitting in my seat, that I was encroaching on someone’s private land. With warm pink neon lights in the house fixtures above, my eyes traced down to the stage where I picked out masterfully incorporated neon blues purples and pinks laced into the plants and chain-link fences of the set. It put a smile on my face right away. In fact, looking around, I noticed it put a lot of smiles on a lot of faces. It felt like a current of energy, inviting me into pieces of a life and a culture I am not a part of.

The piece, I discovered very quickly as action began, feels very Shakespearian. This is New Jersey in the 80’s, big hair blue eyeshadow and all, but it is also a world full of myth, magic and fools. And in this world, all its players are tangled together in a knot tied so tight, people wind up going crazy. (Or maybe they were crazy to begin with). We learn of a patriarch from Sicily who grew his family from the ground up, fathering Tommy, JonJon (the absent mafioso), and Mickey/Grazi the twins. The twins tragically have chosen to devotedly love the wrong people: as Mickey’s wife (now ex-wife, and rumoured to be a witch), and Grazi’s fiance, Mimo, leave the twins brutally and run off with each other. They now live in the upstairs apartment, leaving the twins to fester together in the downstairs and backyard.

Drama unfolds as fast-talking, thick-accented lines whizz out of these characters who grow larger and larger than life every minute. They wind around each other like vines, sometimes suffocating themselves, and us, with their helplessness; all the while tangling deeper into their own paranoia – and as for Mickey, uncoiling a mental illness vague and unspecified. There is a certain objectivity you feel watching the piece: I was very welcomed into the world, but I felt like I was a completely objective observer, watching the action sometimes feeling like watching a slow-motion car trash. It’s… for lack of better words… extremely entertaining. There is such a humor and strange charm to this unfolding disaster. I felt endeared to each character, none of them truly the villain, or the saint. Even the witch who has betrayed our heroins Mickey and Grazi has a very human, and understandable side. And though the play is certainly loud, most scenes featuring a barrage of noise and familial arguing, I felt warmth from the real love that is present in this family. And I laughed at each colorful character, watching their absolute clowning around within a Moonstruck culture zoomed-in on creating even huger moments out of the classic family in the Italian-American-Jersey-ian world.

What I think is most powerful in this piece is its almost electric current of energy. The current I felt walking into the house, and the current I discovered that winds throughout the whole show. This piece believes in magic. There is more to this than family drama, lovers’ quarrel and crimes of passion. There is an underlying electricity of magic that influences the story, it lives in the history of these characters and in the way we roll along this narrative. The family believes in myth, believes in magic, starting from the constant father-son-holy-ghost-hand-to-God action they make after anything mundane happens that sparks their superstition. But I’m not sure it’s really God they are praying to, I think it is this magic they’ve built: I think they are praying to the magic of their family, the gods of their culture. Family is everything.

And ultimately magic proves to become very real: present and influential. Daddy, their patriarch, is embodied through many forms, speaking to Mickey as a big lush moon at the climax while everything is falling apart. He also takes the form of a tomato plant, a puppet who begins the show telling the story of his immigration and how he created this family and world. Tomatoes are everywhere: thrown out of nowhere onto stage at big pivotal moments, characters reborn into tomato plants, still communicating in death. Even metaphorically, tomatoes are present in all the dialogue: their words, like vines, twist around one another. It brought me to an emotional place, past all the laughter and foolishness. It’s their belief system, it’s their myth, and it made me feel such a curious inclusion and deep respect for their world. I loved their faith in their myth: especially in Mickey. Is he crazy? Or is he really just a believer in this magic, completely affected by its fateful hand and his superstition? It’s a beautifully thin line in the work. And the magic that winds and vines around everything is revealed so sensitively, so genuinely. This isn’t a farce, nor is it some caricature. For me, it’s the realist, most grounded facet within this story.

The Witch of St. Elmora Street was performed from December 2nd – 18th, 2016 at the Access Theatre. No doubt it will be produced again, keep your eyes out for this really great new play.

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