Review of The Witches’ Quorum

I love the director and the entire cast and crew of The Witches’ Quorum — including all the designers and the handsome ticket-takers — because they stand on the winning side of what seemed an experiment in finding out how good a production you can get out of David Eshelman’s lousy script. For Quorum is, in fact, a decent evening of theater, built as if by magic on a play that seems to have nothing to recommend it but the effort that talented people expended upon it.

I love Tracey Johnston-Crum. She sheds her customary glamor and portrays a frowsy hag with commitment and comic genius. I haven’t seen everything this actor has done, but her work in Quorum is the best I have seen. Get an actor out of her comfort zone and you might get fire.

I love Steph Anie, for her presence on stage is so majestic that even silly lines in a silly context have weight enough that you stick with them, believing the actor that they will, eventually, lead somewhere.

I love Lauren Bacchus because her magnificent set continues the Magnetic Field’s tradition of getting the absolute most out of that problematic space.

Let’s see if I’ve got the story right: Some witches in 17th century Jamestown (Jamestown? really?) wish to call upon the spirit of Virginia Dare to lead them out of the wicked Christian patriarchy into Croatoan, a paradise-country named after a word carved into a tree by the vanished settlers of Cape Hatteras. The problem is that they need a quorum to raise the right powers, and the local witches keep getting burned by the Reverend Mr. Camden (the lusciously sleazy Scott Fisher).

So Mistress Hibbins (Johnston-Crum) and the slave woman, Cassy (Steph Anie), contrive to enlist the following, at various times, for the remainder of their quorum: Pocahontas (Kathryn Temple); the conveniently white-skinned Indian princess Ayacanora (Lisa Smith); and the transplanted Puritan-virgin Freelove Harrington, played by Magnetic regular Lucia Del Vecchio. Both Hibbins and Cassie are in danger of being burned as witches (which they are) if they don’t play their cards right. They all end up running through the woods believing that “lesbianism” is the salvation of the world.

Lesbianism may in fact be the salvation of the world (worth a try, anyway), but there’s nothing in this play that will win converts to it. Lesbianism ends up looking just as dumb as everything else.

Absurdism — or, to use the phrase one heard bandied about in the Magnetic lobby, “the ridiculous” — is a default setting for tyro playwrights who understand the power of language but really not what to do with it. It’s a playground for untried talent; there’s nothing to call a playwright’s vision to account. It’s just one silly thing rammed up against another. Any humor arises from jarring juxtapositions, not from any unfolding understanding of the human condition. There are laughs in Quorum as there are laughs in a room full of tickling machines and cream-pie launchers. It’s the laughter of the nerves rather than the understanding. A man dressed as a peacock holding a jar of peanut butter while conjugating verbs in Latin (this doesn’t actually happen in the play, but it might have) is funny, in a way, but not in a very commendable or durable way. Quorum seems content to have hit the level of frat house skit night. I don’t deny I got a kick out of it. I also get a kick out of those videos where people get hit in the crotch and fall on patches of ice.

The question in my head is, why this play and not another? What is the principle of selection? It was written by a friend? Or maybe the company gave it to itself, as I suggest above, as a sort of experiment in how closely disaster may be courted and yet avoided?

A company that prides itself on doing exclusively original work might resolve to be more judicious in its choices. Some portion of the destiny of the theater to come may rest on those choices. This time, The Magnetic Field has made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but I wonder what would have happened had they begun with silk.

The Magnetic Field’s next offering is fix, and evening of short plays by Magnetic regulars John Crutchfield, Lucia Del Vecchio and Julian Vorus.

The Witches’ Quorum, by David Eshelman, stars Tracey Johnston-Crum, Steph Anie, Lisa M. Smith, Lucia Del Vecchio, Scott Fisher and Kathryn Temple, and is directed by Steven Samuels and produced by Chall Gray, with sets and props by Lauren Bacchus, costumes by Xanath Espina, lighting by Ryan Madden and sound by Brian Claflin. Performances through June 25, Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. (Late-night shows at 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.) For more information or to purchase tickets, visit or call 257-4003. The Magnetic Field is located at 372 Depot St. Suite 50.


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10 thoughts on “Review of The Witches’ Quorum

  1. Theatre Goer

    Isn’t it time for the Magnetic Theatre to do one of Dr. Hopes’ plays?

  2. Agreed

    Yes, the only bad part about this play is the script itself. The acting and technical work is wonderful, but the “plot,” and cheap, silly humor didn’t do it for me. A suggestion: Go see this play, but stop in the bar first to numb your intellect (plus = you can drink in the theater).

  3. Harrycarrieokie

    Gee, that’s quite a dis of the play, even if it’s complimentary to the actual production. Well, I’m neither stupid nor a drunk, and am usually not easily amused, but despite these hindrances to humor, found this to be one of the most entertaining things I’ve seen in ages.

    There are some cheap laughs, sure, it’s melodramatic (with soap opera organ music to cue the villain, who we’re encouraged to hiss at, etc) plenty of anachronisms, pop culture references, and so forth. As silly as it gets, it all gets laughs.

    At the heart of the story, there are characters who love each other and must construct a farce-like ruse when their livelihood is threatened. There’s some heavy shit going down. The church is burning women alive. Slaves long to be free. Same-sex love is forbidden, yet the preacher himself becomes hypocritically seized with gay lust. Pocahontas, though portrayed as a shallow pop star, does not mince words about the white man when it comes to an ingenue Indian Princess’s naive quest for her “own John Smith.”

    Sometimes in art, the most painful subjects are more effectively dealt with through seemingly superficial humor. A cartoon of horrors can be easier to look at than, say, a realistic portrayal of what the average slave, Native American, or lesbian actually would have endured at the hands of white Christian men in the colonies in the 1600s. But now that we’ve gotten you to look at the silly cartoon, guess what? We’re going to force you to consider that these were, in fact, real human beings.

    The characters still come to hard endings – we’re not spared the awful truths, we’re just given permission to laugh – as much in discomfort at those truths, as at the performances – or the written jokes that don’t happen to have tickled the fancy of TheaterGoer or Agreed.

    As for eh plot, well, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is conflict and resolution. It’s not a terribly long play. And it’s a melodrama, in the first place. You don’t go to a melodrama expecting an narrative epic.

    I’ve seen each production at the Magnetic Field since it opened. This is arguably the most broadly accessible show since When Jekyll Met Hyde. But just because it’s accessible doesn’t mean there’s no “there there.” If nothing else, the majority of y’all will laugh your asses off.

  4. Dramaturg

    Harrycarrioke has written an articulate and obviously knowledge counter-review. Maybe MtnX could add him to its roster of reviewers.

  5. Rebecca Sulock

    We are always looking for articulate and knowledgeable reviewers. Perhaps the writer could contact me at … or anyone else who might wish to write a theatre review. The door is open, as they say.


    I would throw my hat into the ring, but two adjectives seems a bit too strict for qualifications to me. Also, I have a Banksyesque dependence on my pseudonym. For my five cents (I get three more) I disagree about the script, but not in the “You’re wrong and should never review again!” way that’s so popular with the kids these days. I tend to think dark humor can enhance tragedy. Also, while this show may not be the very best example (not that it’s a bad one), I’ve always felt if you can get someone laughing they’re halfway to crying and vice versa, but maybe that’s just my bipolar talking. Either way, good to see debate. I heart debate.

  7. Dramaturg

    Absurdism — or, to use the phrase one heard bandied about in the Magnetic lobby, “the ridiculous” — is a default setting for tyro playwrights who understand the power of language but really not what to do with it. It’s a playground for untried talent; there’s nothing to call a playwright’s vision to account. It’s just one silly thing rammed up against another.

    As a literary man, could the reviewer explain to us the difference between Theatre of the Absurd (as explicated by Martin Esslin) and Theatre of the Ridiculous (as practiced by Charles Ludlam)?

    And those pesky tyros Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard who got got their dramatic feet wet with Absurdism. . . .or was that Arthur Kopit, Edward Albee and John Guare?

  8. Peter Brezny

    Name Dropping and technical definitions aside, The Magnetic Theater has worked its magic again on this bizarre little play.

    Aside from the curiously long first half and excessive exposition it contains, I came away from this show quite surprised at how much I enjoyed it. There are some plays where the author has gone on a bit to long, and there’s nothing to back him up, but I’ll reiterate the several comments above that praise the actors for truly fantastic performances all around.

    This for me made the first half enjoyable, and the second half, where the show really comes together, a true delight. I found myself in that ever so rare state of not realizing I was “in a theater” “at a show” but transported to the magical realm one so rarely gets to enjoy where the audience, the lights–everything falls away and you’re left in the moment.

    There is so much I could say about every actors individual performance in this show, but there’s no need. Every player, from director to technician and actors in between executed their role with precision and style.

    No doubt, spines will tingle at the close of each performance as the actors brings into focus the poignant realities we’ve been surviving through comedy the entire time.

    Bravo Magnetic Field, I can’t wait to come back and enjoy this performance again.

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