Windy City Times
August 27, 2014

Witch Slap!


by Mary Shen Barnidge

Playwright: Jeff Goode. At: Babes With Blades at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. Tickets: 773-904-0391;; $20. Runs through: Sept. 20

The annual Joining Sword and Pen competition challenges its contestants to write a play based on a specified graphic image of women portrayed in a martial context. Last year's chosen visual, however, was Gabriella Boros' grotesque painting of two masked and hooded figures engaging in a brand of surgery resembling a Three Stooges stunt gone Jacobean. Prize winner Jeff Goode attempts to salvage a reading on this cryptic situation rendering its gruesome content palatable to modern audiences, and for the most part, he succeeds.

Taking his cue from the conical hats worn by the perpetrators, our author starts by declaring them to be witches--and where there are witches, you usually find witch hunters. The hysterical mobs in colonial Salem this time, ironically, are more intent on accusing one another of satanic activity than disturbing the genuine sorceresses bunkered into the village Crone's cozy cottage. Besides its withered owner and her addlepated apprentice, the weird sisters include sexy-witch Jezebella, slinky-witch Minerva and buckskin-clad warlock Widow Gumdrops. Before they can ensure their safety, though, their sanctuary is interrupted by the pious Goody Blunt--clutching a bloodstained kitchen cleaver after murdering her abusive husband--in search of protection for herself and her sullen teenage daughter.

Her concern is well-founded. As the roots of persecution in greed, exploitation and suspicion become increasingly apparent, the civic unrest begins to infect those most vulnerable to its menace. The coven members may be accustomed to settling disputes with physical combat, but it comes as a shock when Gumdrops shoots Minerva in cold blood, even if the corpse is later resurrected to lurch about like a Hollywood zombie.

That's right--the grisly spectacle engendered by Cold War-era paranoia is presented as slapstick satire, replete with stuffed-toy felines attacking from the rafters, a length of rope converted into a snake and weighty tomes launching themselves off bookshelves. Maureen Yasko's fight design makes the most of the limited stage space, and the cast assembled by Delia Ford for this Babes With Blades production swaps vaudeville chat with precision timing to keep the repartee and reversals rolling forth right up to the last few minutes, when Goode's indecision over his cynical resolution transforms what begins as a lesson far more dark ( and much, much funnier ) than The Crucible into a shaggy-cat yarn that coasts to a halt when its teller runs out of steam. That said, a 100-minute comic romp ( including intermission ) that delivers 95 percent of its promise is still worthy of admission in these waning days of summer.