Chicago Theater Beat
August 20, 2014

Too childish to enjoy

Babes With Blades presents

Witch Slap!

Review by Lauren Whalen

Watching Witch Slap!, I was confused about several things. How did this script win Babes With Blades' biannual "Joining Sword & Pen" playwriting competition? Was it the only show with an all-female cast? Was it the only entry, period? Why, in a company that prides itself on female stage combat, was there so little of it? And how could less than two hours seem so long? From beginning to end, Witch Slap! was a puzzler, and not even two fairly strong performances and a slight Act II improvement could salvage it.

Loren Jones, Stefanie Johnsen and Patti Moore in the world premiere of Babes With Blades' "Witch Slap!" by Jeff Goode, directed by Delia Ford. (photo credit: Johnny Knight)Though it's peppered with contemporary references, Witch Slap! takes place in colonial times, when public witch hunts are causing mass hysteria. However, the local Crone (Kimberly Logan) appears calm about the whole situation, despite the anxiety of her bumbling apprentice Novella (Loren Jones). Eventually, the two witches are joined by fellow coven members Jezebella (Alison Dornheggen) and Minerva (Stefanie Johnsen) and try to fend off sanctimonious neighbor Goody Blunt (Morgan Manasa) but there's more in store, involving murder, friend against foe and the seductive power of chocolate.

A gaggle of witches trading jokes and the occasional roundhouse kick could make for a fun, entertaining production. I've certainly enjoyed Babes With Blades' work in the past, namely last summer's Bo Thomas and the Case of the Sky Pirates. Though I didn't care for 2012's Trash in terms of plot and dialogue, I loved the strong stage combat from both actresses. Sadly, Witch Slap! contains neither entertaining writing nor very much combat. Jeff Goode's script plays like a high school production crossed with a bad sitcom, with a dash of "Hocus Pocus" wannabe: too many quips and stereotypes, not enough story. Strong comedies contain solid characters, dialogue and action, and Witch Slap! has none of the above. At least one character (Goody Blunt's rebellious teenage daughter Sylvia, played by Patti Moore) didn't need to be there at all.

Unfortunately, the writing isn't the production's only detriment. Director Delia Ford and scenic designer Nicci Schumacher may not have communicated very well: though nicely colorful, the set is big, clunky and ill-fitting for an entire cast who spends most of Act II standing around onstage looking uncomfortable. Kimberly G. Morris' costume design feels inconsistent, with no real plan, and Logan's Crone makeup reads extremely amateurish. Goode's script improves slightly in the play's second half, introducing a few new interesting character elements if only that kind of potential had manifested much earlier. Only two actors are able to transcend the shoddy source material: Dornheggen gives Jezebella a sense of flirty fun, and exhibits top-notch fighting skills, and Manasa has the deranged sense of purity appropriate for Goody Blunt, a sanctimonious housewife gradually coming undone.

Witch Slap! doesn't go any further than a cute title and passable concept. As a company, Babes With Blades has a unique hook and a lot of talent, but their productions tend to be hit or miss. Regretfully, Witch Slap! is a miss, and a very messy miss at that.

Rating:

Witch Slap! continues through September 20th at Raven Theatre West Stage, 6157 N. Clark (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 3:30pm. Tickets are $12-$20, and are available online through BrownPaperTickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at BabesWithBlades.org. (Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes, includes an intermission. Note: show contains strobe effects and gun shots)