Aquelarres certainly explores the space. Staged on a verdant hill behind Edgcumbe Presbyterian Church in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood, the production alternately has actors huddling at one end of the space, wailing at the other, dodging behind trees, gathering on a platform, running around the audience, and wandering through the woods. Depending on where you sit, you’re bound to miss at least a few lines of the unamplified dialogue, particularly given the competition from birds, crickets, and the sounds of summertime revelry drifting in from nearby parties.
Director Madeline Wall’s world premiere production of Joel F. Wilshire’s play, presented under the auspices of The Birth Play Project, is certainly invested in its distinctive milieu. Unfortunately there’s not much else for the audience to invest in, given a long and sometimes stilted script that waters down the magic as characters exchange long passages of urgent dialogue that fail to shed much light on the deeply confusing plot.
The story unfolds along two tracks. A pair of witches (Anya Naylor and Antonia Perez) from a struggling coven hatch a plan to supplicate an ancient god (played by the ensemble as a large puppet with a striking head designed by Robert McGrady with other members of the creative team). Meanwhile, a mysterious young women (Dariana Elise Pérez) seems to perish in the exploitative custody of the local governor (Seth Campbell) and appears to a terrified pair of nuns (Mel Fellows and Olivia Kemp) with ghostly instructions regarding the disposal of her uncorrupted remains.
The play was inspired by the eponymous paintings of Francisco de Goya, and it wears that inspiration like a heavy cloak, with the Moon (Katelyn Tseng McLane) referencing the unseen artwork to set a scene for each of the three acts. There are some striking tableaus as the production descends into darkness (Thursday night’s performance ran to 9:45 p.m.), but the outdoor setting presents real challenges for the cast — sometimes quite distant and dim — to build characterization and drop the exposition the show relies upon.
A few of the actors nonetheless succeed at leaving strong impressions. That includes Antonia Perez, whose character spikes her mythopoetic dialogue with pungent f-bombs; Mel Fellows as an amusingly nervous nun; and a literally haunting Dariana Elise Pérez, who retains her poise even after getting dragged around the glen on a sheet. The villainous Campbell gets an odd comeuppance in a ritual that owes equally to Goya and Xavier Roberts.
Though uneven, Aquelarres marks a welcome stage in the gradual return of live independent theater in all its wonderful weirdness. On Thursday night Wall and Wilshire laid out a tarp and sat on the ground among the audience, watching their creation unfold as the sky dimmed and the footlights burned on.
Photo by Shane Morgan