Bewitched Blanket Babylon

Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre has made a name for itself with overwrought dramas and dark translations of prominent plays. Whether this uncommon company is presenting a contemporary comedy or a Shakespearean tragedy, its productions are distinguished by stacks of video screens and crowds of women in singed nightgowns, stroking potfuls of burning incense and weeping. Most of the plays are directed by Planet Earth co-founder Peter James Cirino and feature his wife, actress Mollie Kellogg Cirino. "Predictable" is a polite word for what usually ensues on the theater's downtown stage, though the company occasionally pulls a coup, as with its entertaining production of Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth earlier this season.

The troupe's infrequent presentations of original work are usually dreary, so I was surprised and delighted to enjoy Witch Holiday, a new play by Laraine Herring. The plot, which combines witch hunts and cheesy, futuristic sci-fi with espionage and a postfeminist moral, is completely absurd. But the acting is smooth and, for once, Peter Cirino's direction is brisk and even-handed.

It seems that, in the year 2032, the dissolution of Christianity has somehow led to the banishment of all other spiritual beliefs. On the longest night of the year, Alison and her lover Margo are mourning the death of their friend Carrie, who has been burned at the stake for being a witch. These gals operate an underground railroad that assists dissident spiritualists in escaping the feds, and are shown helping a rabbi flee to Canada with some contraband religious scrolls. (Women, we are repeatedly told, are "once again at the center of the world's hatred," though presumably not for writing silly futuristic melodramas or naming their children after television sitcom witches.) When Alison's grown daughter, Samantha, announces her intention to run off with her boyfriend, things really heat up. It seems that the boyfriend is a CIA informant working with the president to rid the continent of witches and other pagans and, in the tireless tradition of motherhood, Alison doesn't approve of her daughter's beau.

As silly as all that is, it plays quickly and efficiently and even offers a couple of surprises along with the half-baked spy-thriller stuff. The actors read dialogue cribbed from '50s science-fiction programs with great enthusiasm, and several of them turn in earnest performances that help keep things moving. Anna Maria Luera is especially impressive as Samantha, a girl with a secret past who wishes her parents were more like everyone else. Luera has delivered several strong performances for Planet Earth; I hope she'll try her talent on other local stages.

Joshua Feinman impersonates a youthful double agent with some real panache. Kevin is little more than an evil archetype, a feminist view of lecherous, patronizing masculinity, but Feinman plays him without swagger. He even manages to inject a little humor into a dull scene in which he's invited home to dine with his girlfriend's scary parents. And Precious Morris is amusing as a Cajun sorceress, though I wonder how many ethnic groups she's rankling with her headrag and Pidgin English.

Of the principals, only Kellogg Cirino is disappointing. By now, she's played so many offbeat characters--all of them for her own theater, and most of them directed by her husband--that she's come to rely on quirky line readings and doofy facial expressions to carry her performance. I'd like to see a Mollie Kellogg Preservation Project, designed to rescue this gifted actress's talents from the confines of her husband's direction.

I'm not certain that it's fair to recommend a play because it isn't as dreadful as the producing company's usual fare, but I do know that this tale moves quickly and efficiently and that, with its witchy story line, the usual Planet Earth moaning and myrrh-burning at least has a relevant context. In a December season rife with heartwarming Christmas plays, it's nice to see a holiday entertainment that isn't about consumerism or Christ, and nicer still to see that things at Planet Earth are looking up.

Witch Holiday continues through Sunday,
December 22, at Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre, 909 North Third Street. For more details, see Theater listing in Thrills.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela