Venus Theatre continues to fulfill director Deborah Randall's promise of wild and unapologetic theater in its 2015-2016 Feral 15: Feminist Fables with No Strings Attached season. The latest example is found in its world premiere of Claudia Barnett's "Witches Vanish."
Inspired by history and legend, Barnett's stunning script conjures the stories of real women and girls gone missing from all over the world, witnessed by the "three witches" from MacBeth. The playwright pulls from Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm to tell some of their stories.
The tales Barnett selected to interpret through poetry, puppetry and movement take place in the shadows of Christianity, Judaism and Islam as the audience is transported through disjointed time to destinations such as Juárez, Mexico; the Spanish Inquisition and Constantinople.
According to Randall's program notes, Barnett was inspired to write the play by the femicides out of Juárez — over 700 young women were reported murdered or forced into sexual slavery there between 2010 and 2014 — a news story that had captured Randall's interest for years.
She said that Barnett thought the play was "not producible."
But Randall added two silent characters (the Shadow Witches) with Barnett's blessing and worked with cast member Tara Cariaso, of Waxing Moon Masks, on their design. Cariaso also created the wolf and Evka masks, which Randall said helped her develop some of the staging.
For the premiere, Randall designed the otherworldly set, costumes and props; incorporating 40 anamorphic puppets in concert with Venus' No Strings Attached season. Kristen Thompson designed the transcendent lighting and Neil McFadden the sound.
The puppets, as well as Barnett's twists on Cinderella and Red Riding Hood, likely represent the loss of childhood and moral innocence.
Barnett's poetry — rich with imagery and ascending climaxes — meets Randall's striking visuals in 90 minutes of fast flowing vignettes beautifully enacted by a multi-ethnic cast.
The journey begins as Jennifer Berry and Leticia Monet, as the Shadow Witches, dance eerily in a dark realm. The names of real people, their ages and the dates they disappeared — 82 women and girls by play's end — echo as a disturbing mantra designed by McFadden to distort and fade in and out for emphasis at key moments.
Enter the "weird sisters" chanting Shakespearean text — Vivian Allvin, Cariaso and Lakeisha Raquel Harrison — actors who cross time and cultures without missing a step as they also enact the events the three witches prophesize.
Randall's cast lives every moment of their demanding roles (Allvin hangs off the wall in one scene) with a strength that speaks not only to their talent and training, but also to the intense preparation audiences can expect from Venus Theatre.
Early on, Cariaso — who also brings her singing voice to the stage — insists that a skull cannot be her missing daughter because the teeth are too large.
As the artists' depiction of events based in reality rush toward a crescendo, Allvin as a 5-year-old concubine brutally acts out her abuse on a rag doll puppet. Harrison's performance as the little girl's mother will break any compassionate heart in her portrayal of what comes next.
Randall sums up the haunting message with a final visual composition — a pile of abandoned women's and girls' shoes and a few masks lay scattered across stage as the chanting fades and the lights dim.
Venus Theatre joins more than 50 of the D.C. region's professional theaters producing world premieres of plays by female playwrights between Labor Day and Halloween in conjunction with the Women's Voices Theater Festival with this production.
An actress, published playwright and 2009 Helen Hayes Theatre Artist Award winner, Randall received three best director and best production awards from D.C. Metro Theatre Arts last year. Laurel Mayor Craig Moe proclaimed November 2014 Venus Theatre Appreciation Month.
Randall said that Nayab Hussain, an actor who performed in Robin Rice Lichtig's "Play Nice!" at Venus Theatre in 2010, just landed a co-star role on NBC's "Blindspot," slated to premiere on television Sept. 21.
And in October, Carnegie Mellon Press will publish "No 731 Degraw-Street, Brooklyn or Emily Dickinson's Sister" by Barnett, which Venus produced in 2013.
For the past 15 years, the stated mission of the Venus Theatre has been to "set flight to the voices of women and children."
A caldron boiling over with unforgettable performances, "Witches Vanish" couldn't fit more snugly; it emancipates the powerful voice of the female playwright.
The voices of lost women and girls everywhere have migrated into the light through Barnett's beautiful words.
"Witches Vanish" runs 90 minutes with no intermission and continues at Venus Theatre Play Shack, 21 C St.,, through Sunday, Sept. 20, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with matinee performances on Sundays at 3 p.m. General admission is $20. For reservations, call 202-236-4078 or buy tickets online at venustheatre.org