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


ArtsWatch Weekly: ‘Broomstick,’ Charles Addams, and other frights

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

Here in this little corner of Oregon ArtsWatch World Headquarters, we still get a little excited about Halloween. The current occupant, when he was a child, lived in a place where a few outhouses still dotted the countryside, and he recalls the breathless tales of marauding high-school miscreants out on holiday crime sprees, tipping the things over whether they happened to be in use or not. Ah, tradition: That’s what makes America great.

We like hot apple cider (maybe with a shot), and Night on Bald Mountain or The Monster Mash blaring on the music box, and tykes in strange costumes knocking on the door in a mad quest for high fructose corn syrup in its stickier forms. On the evidence, a lot of other people like this ritualized revel on the dark side, too.


In the Día de los Muertos/Halloween mood: Milagro Theatre's La Muerte Baila swirls with the season of the dead. Photo: Russell J. Young

In the Día de los Muertos/Halloween mood: Milagro Theatre’s La Muerte Baila swirls with the season of the dead. Photo: Russell J. Young

  • Veteran actor Vana O’Brien grabs onto Broomstick, New Orleans playwright John Biguenet’s solo show that the Los Angeles Times calls “an arresting blend of evocative humor and eerie gravitas … about an Appalachian crone who may or may not be a witch.” At Artists Rep; opening night (natch) Halloween.
  •  Michael Graves’s Portland Building, which has something of a nightmare reputation of its own, hosts a Dia de los Muertos installation Wednesday through November 4, a collaboration of muralist Rodolfo Serna, young artists from the  Boys & Girls Club, and members of Portland’s Mexica Tiuhui Aztec dance group.
  • Stumptown Stages’ musical-theater version of Stephen King’s bloody fable Carrie, which Christa Morletti McIntyre, in her ArtsWatch review, says “celebrates the worst of us,” continues to knock ’em dead in the Brunish.
  • Milagro Theatre continues its original Day of the Dead show, La Muerte Baila: A Last Dance To Remember Forever, through November 8. Go ahead: Dance like your life depends on it.
  • And sure enough, the Oregon Symphony‘s chipping in Friday night with a show called Disney in Concert: Tim Burton’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas,’ a title that allows us the frightening pleasure of putting the words “Disney,” “Nightmare,” and “Christmas” in the same sentence. (It’s a Danny Elfman score. That’s a good thing. The show’s sold out. That’s a bad thing.)


And just when you thought you were getting out of this thing alive, here comes Charles Addams.


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