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Photograph by Dana Grover
DOWN SOUTH: Jeannie Rae Orlando (left), Kezia Radke (center) and Kendra Owens get weird in 'The Sugar Witch.'

Bayou Frights

Northside Theatre gets ready for Halloween with eerie 'Sugar Witch'

By Marianne Messina

IF WOOD CHIPS could talk ... In the case of the gnarly bayou front yard in Northside Theatre Company's The Sugar Witch, they would probably say, "Enough with the cockroach cemetery." But Sisser Bean (Kezia Radke), the obese, wheelchair-bound remnant of the long-cursed Bean family, has more eccentricities than her moribund cockroach collection. Northside's homage to Halloween (which includes pumpkins on the haunted porch), the production is not so frightful as eerie. Richard T. Orlando directs Nathan Sanders' original play so that the characters maintain the unexcitable lethargy of those who live under tyranny of heat and humidity.

But the action is far from uneventful. Besides a fire, a love scene (interrupted of course) and a murder, the show is a gem of special effects, dead bodies, silent demons, flickering campfires and flying cats (check out those eldritch eyes). Sisser Bean and her brother, Moses (Scott Cox), live together with Annabelle (Kendra Owens), the last in a shamanic lineage (going back to the town's black, sugar-cane field hands) that once cursed the Bean family. As prospective lovers come hunting, the curse seems to keep the Bean household in a suspended state.

Moses has become a sort of gender-reversed Sleeping Beauty, his life on hold, indentured to his twisted sister (or wicked stepsister). But you don't get this dynamic right away because Cox's Moses is neither overly solicitous nor obviously co-dependent. The staple of his personality is dependability. When Annabelle refers to Moses as "an innocent," everything about him starts to click. As the latest sugar witch of a line baptized in revenge and lust, Kendra Owens' Annabelle is calm and world-weary—no shrill, stereotypical witch. With rich, mannish voice and work boots under her burlap skirt, it's easy to see her as "the man of the house." But Owens is also powerfully grounded—connected to earthiness and centered. Costumer Meredith King has kept Annabelle's beads and witchy paraphernalia to a minimum, and Orlando tosses out the mumbo jumbo, rattle-shaking and shuddering; one shake of a clattering bracelet gets results, and Owens plays it as if power no longer enthralls Annabelle.

A spellbinding storyteller, Owens reminds us that the art of oral storytelling lies in setting the mood and owning the events. And the play recalls that ghost stories are about working through (and out, if you're lucky) the bad energies. Radke gives her Sisser a simplicity that suggests someone with limited mental abilities, but adding the occasional glint of Kathy Bates (in Mercy), Radke makes Sisser at once sympathetic and chilling.

This production puts ideal music in the right place at the right time, from longing country ballads to stompin' banjo jams. During the love scene, a roll in the wood chips intensifies to the escalating arc of the music, like a dance. Sanders could have provided more tension around Moses' climactic act instead of relying on the nature of the act to move us, but The Sugar Witch focuses less on the characters' motivations than on the state they're in. And the action takes us to a sinking, moody climax. I should probably add that the play Witch embraces gay/lesbian themes as heartily as anything you'll get south of San Francisco.

THE SUGAR WITCH, a Northside Theatre production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through Oct. 28 at Black Box Theatre, 848 E. William St., San Jose. Tickets are $12/$15. (408.288.7820)

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