A LOOK BACK IN TIME: Cast of ‘Billy Witch’ pull off complex performances with panache

Nov 14 • ARTSY SMARTSY, FEATURE BOTTOM, TheaterNo Comments on A LOOK BACK IN TIME: Cast of ‘Billy Witch’ pull off complex performances with panache

The UNCW Department of Theatre has the antidote to early winter blues. They invite audiences to come to Camp Blue Triangle and relive some hot summer nights under the stars, filled with ghost stories, bon fires, arts and crafts, and swimming in the lake. Directed by Robin Post, “Billy Witch” by Gregory S. Moss, blends experiential audience participation with more traditional parameters of theatre.

Robin Post and scenic designer Rand Enlow have really outdone themselves to transform UNCW’s Cultural Arts Building into a summer sleep-away camp.  At the door to the main stage, audience members register for camp check-in with two counselors: Becky (Naswana Moon) and James (Josh Browner).  They are seated under an entrance sign for the camp. They provide each camper with a color-coded file containing arts and crafts supplies and writing materials for letters home. Completely in character the entire time as two of the perkiest camp counselors imaginable, they reassure campers about being away from home for the summer, and direct campers to opportunities to make bracelets or do leaf rubbings while they get everyone checked in. The entrance sign is impressive, and it is replicated in both of the theatres the campers pass through during the course of the night—in the SRO Theatre with totem poles that are surprising in their detail and vibrant in color.

The campers are herded into the SRO and divided up according to the color of their folders. As adults we learn to slowly take ownership of our decisions, our bodies in space, and the situations we allow ourselves to be subjected to. Children do not have these options; the exercise is actually a really powerful trigger to take us back to a time in our lives where we went where we were told, followed rules we were given (with no ability to agree or reject), ate food we were served (with no other options provided), and slept with strangers in a building in the middle of nowhere—and were not able to leave. Frankly, as an adult, there is no way I would willingly submit to that. But these are standard expectations we place on children and teenagers. Their refusal to conform to these situations results in punishment.

Over this, we lay a thin veneer of “fun” in the form of nonsense songs, jokes, stories, and enforced group activities, like swimming, races and team sports. (Can readers tell I loathed the years of summer camp I endured?) Post and the cast captured it perfectly. Becky and James start by leading all the campers in several rounds of “Boom—Chick-a-Boom!” a nonsense rhyming song that gets repeated in a variety of accents and voices (“Underwater,” “Valley Girl”). It is standard camp-song fare like “Fried Ham” or “Henry the Eighth.” Their commitment to the songs is admirable, and only at summer camp could young adults act like that in public and not endure endless ridicule.

Camp director PD Lockwood (Leland Reese Crawley) gives a rousing speech that is equal parts sweet and creepy—perhaps an accurate description of an adult man who has chosen to spend his life at summer camp rather than grow up. At this point I started to wonder if any of these campers were going to see their families again—or had everyone been brought here for some sort of mass abduction or murder?

If I am worried, Oliver (Jared Jones) is one of the most trusting souls ever to walk the planet. He is busy writing a letter to his parents about how excited he is and how he hopes camp will change him this year. Oliver shares a bunk with Arden (Reilly Callaghan)—a very strange fellow indeed. Every time Oliver or the audience think they have Arden figured out, he surprises us yet again. He is equal parts charisma and retreat. In a very weird and round-about way, he does help Oliver score a date with Miranda (Abigail Norris) after lights-out. Norris’ Miranda is really a lovely and mildly confused young lady with emotions that rise to the surface easily. Such emotions are exploited by her best friend (at camp), Sandy (Amber Wrench), a very excited, high-energy girl who is quite the know-it-all. Actually, the two are wonderful at illustrating the shifting sands of power in teen girls’ friendships.

Just when things couldn’t get weirder, Oliver encounters a morose young man who looks a lot like Billie Joe Armstrong (I swear, every time I saw him, “Wake Me Up When September Ends” danced through my head). This kid is not having fun. He is eerie and needy. He seems to evoke something about the camp ghost story of Billy Witch. You know, the story told at the bonfire about the kid that disappeared?

The whole team of “Billy Witch” successfully bring to life a very creative script and concept. Post has given the cast a lot of challenges, from interacting with the audience in character before the show, to some pretty complex games and dances they pull off with panache. I particularly liked the motif for the lake, which was visually beautiful but also unfolded as a nice metaphor onstage.

“Billy Witch” explores the magical, oftentimes terrifying world of growth using camp and adolescence as an allegory for the challenges we face at different times in our lives. Finding ourselves is about finding our inner strength, our courage, our sense of right and wrong, and our ability to give parts of ourselves to those who need them most—and are frequently the people who have the hardest time asking. It isn’t just Oliver who finds answers to these questions, but his journey is certainly fun to watch.

Do not misunderstand the advertising and decide this is a way to introduce your child to the idea of sleep-away camp before next summer. Actually, it is not a show to take young children to—there are a lot of adult situations discussed and preformed.  But as an adult, looking back at that time in life, this is a great way to revisit the things remembered with rose-colored glasses.

Billy Witch
Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. matinee at 2 p.m., Nov. 16-19
UNCW Cultural Arts Mainstage
5270 Randall Dr.
Tickets: $6-$15
www.uncw.edu/theatre/Productions/Billy Witch

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