Ancient Lives: In brief
A teacher and three students try to start a TV station in the woods in a literary-minded new work by writer-director Tina Satter (whose forward-looking feminist company, Half Straddle, is one of the city's troupes to watch). The cast of five includes Jess Barbagallo and Eliza Bent.
Ancient Lives: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Tina Satter's Ancient Lives gives pleasure in outline alone: a lo-fi scrambling of '90s movies such as The Craft with Thoreau's Walden, druidic mysticism grafted onto Heathers. First, there's a petulant curtain speech by Eliza Bent in a high side-ponytail and Snoopy pants: She's going out to the woods to do magick with her friends, no matter what Mom says. Then musician Chris Giarmo shows up high on a platform, wearing a badger suit and providing wyrd electronica; he's a one-badger band. Our delight seems assured! The ingredients are in place.The night is willing. And yet theatrical enchantment is as elusive as the real (fake) thing.
The plot—much as in Satter's other plays like Nurses in New England or In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL—imagines an all-woman environment, then lets jealousy tear the sorority apart. When English teacher and mystic Paula (Lucy Taylor) gathers a jean-jacketed coven around her in the woods, her student paramour Margo (beautifully sullen Emily Davis) seems on board. Certainly she and fellow cheerleaders Susan (Julia Sirna-Frest) and Karla (Bent) try their best at making a news channel to communicate the group's insights. (This leads to a great deal of video that, while tidily designed by Ilan Bachrach, feels like an afterthought.) But then Morris (Jess Barbagallo) swaggers up wearing a giant witch's hat, riding a broomstick like it's Danny Zuko's Ford. “I know, like, half a poem, total,” he admits, and the sisterhood swoons.
Half Straddle generates its unique comic texture from a shrugging girl-speak, written in an alphabet of eye rolls and no-one-understands-me sighs. Here they fold in Shakespeare and Arthur Miller (Paula was the elocution coach), evoking that charmed part of adolescence when hormones unlock poetry. I do love Satter's basic recipe, but here, the company's coolness seems inward-turning, and the audience remains left out. Ancient Lives feels longer than it should. The pace flags almost immediately and scenes are sometimes only two lines long, creating a stuttering rhythm that makes all the lightness paradoxically heavy. Barbagallo and Davis strike romantic sparks off each other, and the piece has an ending as delicious as its beginning. The middle, though, that long middle—that's where the spell needed more eye of newt.—Theater review by Helen Shaw
THE BOTTOM LINE Tina Satter and Half Straddle’s witches-gone-wild comedy casts an uneven spell.