Wed Feb 6 2008
Photograph: Brian Dilg
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5
Stunning and impenetrable in equal parts, Beatrice Manley’s rough-hewn folk opera Conjur Woman is better appreciated as a creepy-crawly blues gig than as a play. On one side of a tall, wood-slat set by Jun Maeda, a wizened Sheila Dabney howls and keens like a woman both possessed and cruelly abandoned by unnameable demons; opposite her, Yukio Tsuji (on guitar) and Jasper McGruder (harmonica) provide rich, prickly underscoring steeped in Delta blues and tinged with Gypsy chromaticism.
The prevailing mood is edge-of-hell incantation, as if this woman was forever raging against an unseen tempest. Under Jeff Tapper’s stark colored lights and with the musicians grooving along, this bruja’s brew can be occasionally hypnotic. “God be wid me in my hatred,” Dabney wails memorably at one point; that we’re not entirely sure which god she’s invoking—not to mention the precise target of her hatred—makes such malevolence all the more bone-chilling.
The show’s near-constant, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins–esque intensity is just as often wearying, though. A few clear, calm moments stand out against the extreme backdrop, as in a folksy tune in which the singer dreams she changed color: “My face is white like putty…an’ I’m crying black tears.” Provocative wood and tree metaphors follow, and indeed pervade the lyrics from its opening strains (“I made you de prettiest tree in de grove”) to a bleak, abrupt conclusion that evokes “Strange Fruit.” What transpires in between is a waking-nightmare blues that casts an odd, intermittent spell.