Intersections

Exploring the crossroads of religion, culture, and science through a Pagan lens


Leave a comment

Finding the Hook in your Heart and Soul

I am an unabashed lover of all things Peter Pan.  Aside from the sheer brilliance of the story itself, a tale that speaks to both children and adults, I have always been fascinated by the many permutations and iterations the J.M. Barrie’s convention-breaking stage play about a flying child.  It is a mark of great literature that many readers over multiple generations can find new and interesting angles from which to approach an old story, and Peter Pan may have more retellings and alternate approaches than just about any other story.  Through these retellings, a story stands the test of time.  And time, in the form of threatening adulthood and the deadly Tic-Toc Croc, is the principal antagonist in the story of the Boy Who Never Grew Up.

Finding Neverland is one of the most interesting incarnations of the beloved story.  Based on a play by Allan Knee, the 2004 film presents the story of how the Scottish playwright Barrie dramatically altered his life, challenged London’s strict social norms, befriended a family of young boys who inspired him, and ultimately penned this enduring classic in the face of deep resistance.  It’s a lovely, touching movie.  

In 2015, the story hit Broadway as a stage musical.  Music is a powerful way to touch at your heart, and the show pounds its way into your senses near the end of the first act and never lets go.   

If you know the movie, then you know that the London theater establishment resisted Barrie’s fantastical idea of a children’s play not necessarily for children.  A nanny dog, flying children, and non-verbal fairies seemed like a terrible stretch to the minds of straight laced Edwardian England.  They were right, to an extent.  In the show, Barrie gets called out on his over-exuberant fantasy at the cost of anything interesting:

“You don’t even have a villain,” Barrie is told.  From there, he suffers the loss of all that is important to him.  He is alone.  In his outcast mind, struggling with how to achieve this play that will eventually make history, he is confronted by the darkest part of himself.  James Barrie comes face to face with his shadow self and his iconic villain: James Hook.  Barrie’s alter ego tells him:

 

“No need to be afraid

Every little shackle deserves it’s praise

Time to unshackle all your chains

Don’t be so cowardly I’ll change”

 

In a dark and scary moment for both Barrie and the audience, Captain Hook tells his creator

“You have to look in your heart in your soul

You must find a hook in your heart in your soul

ANd search every nook in your heart in your soul

Don’t live by the book in your heart in your soul

We live by the hook!”

finding neverland

“Stronger.” Source: nytimes.com

It was the conflict that was necessary to make a classic.  With the darkness, the conflict, Peter Pan blossomed from a limp fairy tale into a robust and enduring classic.  Peter Pan is made what it has become not by its fun and frolic, but by the creeping crocodile threat that contrasts with Peter’s playful denial:

  • Peter Pan almost dies to end the first act.  We go to intermission with our hero proclaiming, “To die would be an awfully big adventure.”
  • Tinkerbell sacrifices herself for Pan and her light fades toward death.
  • The Darling children are captured by pirates and threatened with their lives.
  • The Darling parents spend the entire story sick to death at the loss of their children.

Tic Toc.  Tic Toc.  

Our lives and our magical practice are the same.  We may prefer the easy moments, the fun and frolic of living in a state of Neverland-ish denial, but on its own that has no meaning.  We must face the Hooks in our own heart and soul, for it is our struggles and painful moments – and perhaps ultimately our victory over them – that give our lives greater meaning.  They create the awfully big adventure.  Barrie needed his hook.  Peter needed his shadow reattached.  We need our pains to know how we’ve triumphed.  They help us define ourselves and learn how to be, in the words of the first act finale, Stronger:

 

“I can run now so much faster

Now defeat won’t be my master

I will conquer the demons

I won’t have to wait any longer

I’ve got to be stronger”

There will always be difficult times ahead, but if classics can be written under adversity, we can also become stronger from that which does not kill us.  Our Hooks give our lives meaning if we can find them.

 


Leave a comment

The Saga of Beer in Iceland

Today is “Beer Day” in Iceland.  On this day in 1989 – yes, 1989- beer became legal in Iceland after a long and arduous struggle with prohibition.  This is the story of beer’s long journey through the Land of Fire and Ice.

The country of Iceland is known for its sagas, epic myths and legends that tell the history of the island nation from its founding and through its often bloody battles with the new religion of Christianity.  But there is another saga, another epic journey that remains unknown to most people outside of the country: the journey of beer.  This intrepid beverage, enjoyed around the world for, took almost the entire 20th century to claw its way out of rabid disfavor to become the most popular alcoholic beverages in the country. So pull a seat up to the fire as recount the history of beer in Iceland…

 

In early times, Icelanders drank their share of both beer and mead, but much like the United States, the temperance movement began to rise in the early 1900’s.  Beyond the normal religious arguments against alcohol at the time, imbibing had also come to be viewed as unpatriotic.  The grains necessary to make beer could not be grown in Iceland’s climate and had to be imported. Iceland was struggling for independence from Denmark at the time, and Icelanders began to associate consumption of it with their unpopular rulers.  The Danes apparently enjoyed lots of alcohol, especially beer, and so doing the opposite of what they did came to be seen as patriotic.

 

In 1908, shortly after gaining home rule, a little over 60% of Icelanders voted for full prohibition.  The law didn’t take effect until 1915, but for a short time all alcohol was banned on the island.  It didn’t last long.  Spain, a major producer of wine, stepped in and made a threat.  They threatened to embargo all imports of cod, Iceland’s top export, if the Iceland didn’t re-legalize spirits.  So for economic reasons, a deal was made and the island legalized wine – but only red and rosé wine, and only from Spain and Portugal.  Beer was still disparaged and discouraged.

 

It remained that way for 12 years.  Then, in 1933 the country allowed a vote on legalization of hard spirits.  57% of the citizens voted to bring back booze, but resistance against beer remained strong.  The pro-temperance and anti-beer forces argued that beer’s cheaper price would lead to increased rates of alcoholism.  They were successful. That means that from 1933 to 1989, Icelanders could drink all the wine and hard spirits they wanted, but they could not legally drink any beer containing more than 2.25% alcohol.

 

It gets stranger.  As World War II gripped the region, Great Britain and the U.S. saw Iceland’s position halfway between Europe and North America as a strategic necessity.  Likewise, Iceland had no interest in being invaded by the Nazis. So, with government permission, British forces took over a strategic area on a western peninsula (now the international airport) to upgrade it into a military base.  The British soldiers liked their beer, but were dismayed to find that the pints they so commonly found in London pubs were outlawed in Iceland.

 

Once again, Iceland changed its laws to appease another country, but only slightly.  With special dispensation from the King of Denmark, they opened exactly one legal brewery and allowed it to brew beer, but only to be “exported” to the British at the military base.  Suffice it to say that jobs on the base were in high demand with the locals.

260px-mynd_af_hc3b6fuc3b0stc3b6c3b0vum_2b_fc3a1nar

The Egill Skallagrimsson Brewery in Reykjavik was theonly legal brewery in the country for decades. [Source: Wikipedia]

Beer remained illegal to all those outside the base, but contact with other nations had awakened Iceland’s taste for a good brew.  For decades, only airline workers, boat captains, and others whose job took them overseas had access to beer.  An exception to the law allowed some of these people as well as foreign tourists to bring beer into the country. They did this, but often sold it on the black market to taxi drivers, who would keep cases in their trunks.  If anyone called a cab company and asked for a “good taxi,” cab drivers knew what that meant: a little chance to profit from selling brews on the down low.

 

Locals did other strange thing to satisfy their growing taste for this elusive beverage.  Since 2.25% beer was prohibited, but the hard stuff was perfectly legal, they got creative.  And not in a good way.  They developed a sort of beer cocktail.  It started with a pitcher of the legal, low-alcohol beer.  The bartender would then dump copious amounts of vodka and Brennivin, Iceland’s national schnapps, into the pitcher to create a cocktail that was both strong and patriotic.  The thing is, Brennivin (AKA “Burning Wine” or “Black Death”) is flavored with caraway seeds, so it has the distinct flavor of rye bread. Use your imagination.  I tried this concoction in Reykjavik.  It was terrible.  Yet, this was what passed for Icelandic beer through most of the last century.

Our Icelandic bartender creates the Beer/Brennivin cocktail. [Photo: Tim Titus]

Our Icelandic bartender creates the Beer/Brennivin cocktail. [Photo: Tim Titus]

Pressure built through the 70’s and 80’s.  Beer was available out of taxis for anyone who wanted it.  The import law was challenged in 1979, and suddenly any Icelander could import beer duty free.  They did so with abandon.  Beer was being consumed around the island, but the government was getting no benefit from taxation.  As so often happens, it was the money issue that finally swayed the people to legalize the drink.  On March 1, 1989 Icelanders bought their first legal beers in almost a century.  They celebrated in ways you can probably imagine.  Today, it is the most popular alcoholic beverage in the country.  Beer had achieved victory!

iceland

Icelanders celebrated Beer Liberation on March 1, 1989. [Source: Europeenses]

So today, raise a pint to Icelandic Beer Day and remember all who fought and drank for the right of others to do so.  Cheers- or as they say in Iceland- Skoal!


Leave a comment

Hidden Figures and Pussyhats

The new film Hidden Figures tells the story of three black women (among many) who helped to save the American Space Program.  In segregated Virginia, these women battled both racism and misogyny, deftly fended off micro- and macro-aggressions against both race and sex, and figured out the very mathematics necessary to launch Americans into orbit and bring them back safely.  Ultimately, their work helped to win the Cold War.

Source: Educationworld.com

Their stories have been largely untold until now.  Their lives were mostly unknown by the general population.  Sadly, despite their incalculable service to their country, despite the fact that they fought against all odds and proved their value and their capabilities, the same fights are still being waged.  Racism is alive and well; misogyny is on its way to taking power in the White House.

After the movie, I happened to overhear two people discussing what they had just seen.  “They didn’t complain,” said one person.  “They just accepted things for the way they were and worked harder.”  These two moviegoers went on to praise the three main characters in the film, not for their genius or their bravery, but for being quiet and meek about the injustices they were forced to overcome.  It was, in their minds, good for these three black female heroes to remain hidden.

Someone clearly missed the point.

As a Pagan, I’m proud to be part of a religious community that is on the forefront of the fight for equality.  We aren’t perfect.  Racism and sexism and other injustices still crop up, but large numbers of our community believe in and actively fight for the equality of all people.  To the general public, we are often hidden.  They want us, and others who believe in equality, to remain that way.

No.

With an administration that has openly insulted women and advocated racist and xenophobic policies, those who believe in equality can’t afford to remain hidden.  What is hidden needs to be revealed, and it needs to claim its power.

One way women are doing that is through the Pussyhat Project.  Inspired by President-Elect Trump’s now infamous claim that he can “grab” women “by the pussy,” knitters have created a hat design to bring their support for equality out of the shadows.  They are taking a term usually used pejoratively and taking back its power.  Many plan to wear the knit hats as they protest the inauguration in Washington D.C. and across the country.  It’s a simple, but visible sign of protest.  It’s a method of claiming power and refusing to stay hidden.

Source: thestranger.com

Contrary to the views of the ladies I overheard, remaining hidden does not help.  The three women who sent America into space may well have succeeded in changing the culture of NASA, but it took a larger and more visible fight to make progress against legal segregation.  There’s a larger, cultural reason that Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan were unknown before this movie.  The contributions of both women and African-Americans is largely absent from standard history books.  That leads to ignorance about their contributions.  Ignorance leads to hatred and fear.

The only remedy for ignorance is exposure and education.  I’ll be wearing a pussyhat proudly and I look forward to helping my black and female friends shine a light on their contributions to society.

 

 

 


2 Comments

Top 10 Pagan Quotes of 2016

2016 was a difficult year in Pagan quotes.  It has been a year of radical change.  It included painful losses of beloved musicians and actors.  It has seen the international stage struggle with surprising and potentially world-changing transformations in the status quo. Marginalized communities feel threatened and unsure of the future.

 

In the midst of mainstream lurches in the norm, the Pagan community was embroiled in political and theological arguments even as we were grasping for answers to the larger questions in world’s sudden changes.   As I prepared this annual list, I realized just how much the Pagan microcosm was reflected in the international macrocosm.

me-2016

And yet, through darkness comes light.  Our bodies heal when we sleep, and we learn valuable lessons from life’s difficult moments.  This year’s top 10 quotes embody the many struggles the Pagan community has been through, both internally and externally.  As usual, these quotes must have been said or written by a Pagan (large umbrella).  They are based purely on my reading and my tastes, so I undoubtedly missed something you loved.  Please feel free to continue the discussion by adding your favorite quotes to the comments.

 

Alright Witches and Pagans, here are my votes for the Top 10 Pagan quotes of 2016.  We’ll begin with a quote from January that, looking back, seems quite prophetic:

* * *

10. “You may not know how to embrace change, but I am here to show you the way. Let me introduce you to my Lord, Loki.”

Heather Freysdottir, January 11

 

9. “If we hope to create societies without domination, violence, and war, then we must transform the distorted images of masculinity and femininity that have been developed in patriarchy. We must insist that domination, violence, and war are no more part of masculinity or male nature than passivity and lack of consciousness are part of femininity or female nature. It may feel good to speak of reuniting the masculine and the feminine, but feeling good will not help us to transform cultures built on domination, violence, and war.”

Carol P. Christ, January 25

8. “But self-reliance is a myth. We are all co-dependent upon everything else on this planet. We do not exist in a vacuum. We need others in order to exist, let alone thrive. We are not separate. Without the innumerable other factors in our lives, beings seen and unseen, we simply could not be. I think that this is why I believe in the gods.”

Joana van der Hoeven, November 14

 

7. “I find Power in the things Christians shout at me–damn straight, I am Lucifer’s f*ggot spawn!”

-Pat Mosley, May 12

 

6. “You know who a lot of those newbs were? Young women. You ever notice how we make fun of anything young women like?

“The internet is full of people bitching about what is and isn’t real witchcraft. Jesus, just look at Patheos’s pagan section and be bored to tears after the tenth article on the subject. That hasn’t changed since the dawn of the internet, and it never will. The only thing that changes is the target everyone is trying to tear down. Pastel Instagram-worthy witchcraft is a fucking easy target because it looks shallow as hell.”

-Mama Fortuna, May 29

 

5. “We don’t run away from the monsters.  We make the monsters run away from us.”

-Greywolf Moonsong, December 21

 

4. “Seriously? When did Witchcraft become a pissing contest?”

-Jason Mankey, April 7

 

 3. “Power comes from all kinds of places, even the places you think are trivial.  Remember that when your sisters that you were so eager to step on as you were coming up get strong enough to come for you.”

-Deborah Castellano, June 1

 

2. “We are most happy to report that none of our clergy subscribe to your views on mixed race or gay marriage, and so we cannot assist you in your upcoming visit to Ireland. Fuck Off. Yours very sincerely, Everyone at the Pagan Federation of Ireland.”

-Everyone at Pagan Federation of Ireland, April 24

Source: theoutmost.com

Source: theoutmost.com

 

1. “In drawing on the momentum of emotions and saying what he pleases, with no apology, Trump has trumped American politics.”

-Taylor Ellwood, March 3

 


1 Comment

Newt Scamander, Politics, and the Value of Caring

In “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” J.K. Rowling presents the familiar wizarding world she originated with Harry Potter, but turns it on its head.  Instead of Britain, the film takes place in the United States.  Different laws apply to the witches and wizards of America, a fact which becomes a source of both humor and tension.  Our main characters are not children, but adults.  Instead of spending multiple installments worldbuilding and introducing a magical system, the new series is able to jump us right into a fully fleshed out world where we all know the rules, allowing more focus on storytelling.

But more importantly, our new hero is very different.  Newt Scamander is nothing like the Boy Who Lived.  Where Harry knows from the day he enters Hogwarts that he is marked out as the savior of the wizarding world, Scamander is really nothing more than a dedicated animal lover who seeks only to rescue and preserve the world’s most misunderstood creatures.  He’s a conservationist, not a warrior.

This brilliant article explains it much better than I can.  While Harry was a swashbuckling Gryffindor, focused on courage and great deeds, Newt is a Hufflepuff – a member of the most underappreciated house at Hogwarts.  If the houses are elemental, Harry is a fire and Newt is an Earth.  Harry must focus on strength and justice and the will to fight.  Newt’s goal is to save the earth’s magical creatures, care for them, and educate others about their importance.  He’s much happier digging in the dirt to feed his beloved “beasts” than fighting wand-to-wand with dark wizards.  Hufflepuff’s key word is Loyalty, and Newt is unfailingly loyal to the animals that depend on him (and he’s happy to fight and dark wizards who might happen to threaten them).

Harry exemplifies the classic Hero’s Journey.  Newt’s largest concern is ensuring that his thunderbird gets fed.

Harry Potter. [Source: Playbuzz.com]

Harry Potter. [Source: Playbuzz.com]

Newt Scamander [Source: Warner Brothers]

Newt Scamander [Source: Warner Brothers]

The two heroes couldn’t be more different from each other, but in truth they complement each other.  They represent two different ethical ideas from psychological research: The ethic of justice and the ethic of caring.

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg was studied the moral development in children.  His method was to give children a problem, known as the Heinz Dilemma, and ask them their reasoning.  In short the Heinz Dilemma is as follows:

In Europe, a woman was near death from cancer.  One drug might save her, a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered.  The druggist was charging $2000, ten times what the drug had cost him to make.  The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could get together only about half of what it should cost.  He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or to let him pay later.  But the druggist said no.  The husband got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife.  Should the husband have done that?  Why?

Kohlberg would collect the children’s answers and categorize their reasoning.  In his research, he identified a three-level system of moral development with two sub-stages per level.  The first level focuses on following rules and avoiding punishment.  The second is more about social approval and maintaining order.  The final stage is when a person guides their reasoning based on higher, philosophical ethical principles.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

It all sounded fine until Carol Gilligan, one of Kohlberg’s students, noticed a trend.  Young girls and women tended to score on the lower levels of the scale more often than boys and men.  Males were more likely to be scored in the upper categories of moral reasoning.  

This did not sit well with Gilligan.  What she realized was that Kohlberg was bringing a masculine bias – a concept referred to in the linked article as “Toxic Masculinity” – to rate his respondents.  Gilligan theorized that men tend to reason through an ethic of justice, while women tend to utilize an ethic of caring.  She developed the Dilemma of the Porcupine and the Moles to test this theory:

It was growing cold, and a porcupine was looking for a home. He found a most desirable cave but saw it was occupied by a family of moles.

“Would you mind if I shared your home for the winter?” the porcupine asked the moles.

The generous moles consented and the porcupine moved in. But the cave was small and every time the moles moved around they were scratched by the porcupine’s sharp quills. The moles endured this discomfort for as long as they could. Then at last they gathered courage to approach their visitor.

“Pray leave,” they said, “and let us have our cave to ourselves once again.”

“Oh no!” said the porcupine. “This place suits me very well.  If you’re not happy, then you should leave!”

As with the Heinz Dilemma, what is important is not the answer, but the reasoning.  Gilligan developed a model of morality that placed self preservation at the bottom, self-sacrifice in the middle, and the principle of nonviolence at the top.  She found that female participants scored higher overall than they did in Kohlberg’s model.

 

I don’t believe that the two ethical approaches are as clear cut across binary gender lines as it may seem.  Indeed, two men – Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi – famously exemplified Gilligan’s highest principle of nonviolence.  However, I do see both ethical models as valid.  And, rather than pitting them against each other, I think we should see them as partners.

The world needs its Harry Potters: the young (or young-at-heart) people willing to risk life and limb for justice. Especially now, we need our activists on the front line protesting DAPL, taking to the streets to advocate for equal rights, and taking to social media to light the fire under under everyone else’s collective asses.

We also need our Newt Scamanders.  We need those who stay calm, assess the situation, and select their battles out of concern for those they care for.  We need our Hufflepuffs who are willing to help those in physical and emotional pain, see to the physical needs of our more vocal activists, and to tame the wild spirit of rage that can sometimes get diffused. We need those who process calmly but get the job done.  As Newt Scamander placidly states while he approaches a dangerous capture: “My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice.”  

We are entering into a dark time, both in the Wheel of the Year and in American politics.  Dark times are painful, but they can lead to growth.  Dr. King intentionally led his followers into painful situations to stimulate change.  The discomfort of dark times can stimulate growth and manifest will, but it takes the Hufflepuffs caring for the wounded and as much as the Gryffindors on the front line.

It was Albus Dumbledore, the wisest Harry Potter character of all, who said that Love was the most powerful force in the world.  Love inspires frontline activism as much as nurturing of those who fight and those who fall.  In dark times, each person needs to choose where to focus their love.  Justice is vital, but so is Caring. When the future looked bleak, all of Hogwarts, even the Hufflepuffs, had to come together to defeat Voldemort’s fascist coup.


Leave a comment

Virtues of the Goddess: Reverence

As the calendar moves through October, our local theater options tend to turn toward plays with darker themes.  Early in the month, I was privileged to see two beautifully realized musicals that turn a shaded eye onto humanity’s condition.  The first was Sweeney Todd, the classic tale of the murderous barber of Fleet Street.  The other was a surprise: a powerful stage musical adaptation of Disney’s animated film The Hunchback of Notre Dame (itself adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel).  

Both of these musical feature pious, powerful men who become villains in their thirst for even more power and control over a woman who is unlucky enough to catch their fancy.  In both cases, these men result to a scorched Earth policy to force themselves upon the women they lust after, all the while maintaining an air of haughty propriety – a sense that everyone should be like them, and those who are not are unfit to live.  And yet, each show features an intense musical number where the pious villain breaks down in his weakness, turns to mush, then commits to his vile course of exploitation and murder.

Sweeney’s Judge Turpin whips himself in shame, then sexually advances on his adopted daughter.  This, of course, years after he acquired that daughter by raping her mother and falsely sending the girl’s father away to prison for life.

Hunchback’s Frollo, a Catholic priest, prays to his God, begs for help, then strikes out to burn Esmeralda at the stake if she refuses to submit to his sexual desires.  

Both excuse their actions through prayer, begging their god for mercy while offering none to the women who deny them.  Both use their positions of power and prestige as a sword to the throat of the innocent.  Both are objects of reverence in their own community who aren’t worth the ground their victims spit on.  

At the end of Hunchback we are give a powerful riddle to solve:

What makes a monster,

And what makes a man?

What Makes a monster? Wikimedia

What Makes a monster? Wikimedia

 

What makes a monster? Source: Playbill.com

What makes a monster? Source: Playbill.com

 

At the darkness of Samhain approaches, it came to me that the answer is the final virtue in this series: Reverence.  You can tell a “man” (to be inclusive, a person) by whom and what they revere.  In this case, actions speak louder than words.  Both villains make a show of revering their Catholic God, but in truth they revere power over others, control, abuse, and manipulation.  Without getting political, I think we can find a lot of people in our modern society like that.  These are the monsters.

Yet, there are others, people from all faith traditions and those who claim no faith, who revere the ideas and morals than make them “a man,” and their actions also reveal their loyalties.  Do they stand up for love?  Equality?  Fairness?  Do they live that every day?  Do they speak out for these things?  Do they truly live up to the moral code they espouse?  All of these can be done regardless of religious practice.  And if you truly revere these qualities, you live them.

And What Makes a Man? eddieonfilm.blogspot.com

And What Makes a Man?/ Source: eddieonfilm.blogspot.com

 

We get tested when things get dark in our lives.  As we approach Samhain, the time of darkness, we face toward our ancestors and we know that they know our true selves.  We come face to face with our death, and we know that what we revered in life will follow us in the memories of those who live after us, those who will call us ancestors.

What do you revere?  Would you rather be a “monster” or a “man”?

Virtues of the Goddess is a series on the eight virtues mentioned in the Charge of the Goddess and their relationship to the sabbats of the Wheel of the Year.  This is the final installment – Part 8: Reverence.


Leave a comment

A Powerful Sweeney at Curtis Theatre

Mythology is not confined to the ancients.  Societies are constantly developing new folklore from bits and pieces of history, rumor, and belief with a dash of morality  peppered in.  Those stories become folklore, which gets reiterated through the arts. Stories, paintings, songs, and other art forms both perpetuate and transform the tales until they settle in on a narrative sweet spot, one that speaks to the heart of listeners while also teaching a moral truth.  The myth becomes just fictional enough to be palatable and just plausible enough to be enjoyable.

 

That’s what happened with the British legend of Sweeney Todd, the murderous 19th century barber who slit the throat of his victims, then sent them down into his landlady’s meat pie shop to be transformed into a delicious treat for the masses.  Various tales of cannibalism in Britain reached back at least to the 17th century.  Over time, they evolved and ultimately were worked into an 1847 Penny Dreadful novel, The String of Pearls: A Romance.

 

From there, Sweeney’s tale morphed into a popular melodrama, at least six film versions, numerous stage plays, and most famously into the Stephen Sondheim musical thriller, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  Perhaps because this version combines Sondheim’s dark and powerful score, perfect characterizations, a bit of humor, and a large dose of taboo, it has become the standard iteration of this piece of English folklore.  Last night, a compelling staging of this classic thriller opened at the Curtis Theatre in Brea, and it remains just as powerful as the first time anyone ever watched Sweeney’s razor float across its first throat.

Directed by Stephen John, this production is filled with talent.  Rudy Martinez employs a rich, deep baritone expertly as the “demonic” barber.  Beyond his voice, though, Martinez avoids the slightly wild-eyed characterization of this serial murderer that is so common.  Martinez’s Sweeney is precise, focused, and grounded in an inner strength that makes his character all that more chilling.  In the pivotal role of Mrs. Lovett, Laura Gregory also brings a more robust and self-assured demeanor mixed in with perfectly-delivered dry humor.  This is a bawdy and vocally solid Mrs. Lovett that breaks the mold of the cooky, grandmotherly character that developed early in the musical’s history.

 

Phil Nieto is appropriately disturbing and intimidating as the evil Judge Turpin, particularly in self-flagellating solo, “Johanna.”   This sequence is often seen as too dark even for this show, and its impact commonly blunted by placing the judge in darker light or facing him away from the audience.  Not this time.  Nieto’s large, powerful body faces directly at us, and we get a disturbing look into the mind and heart of our amoral villain as he prays for deliverance.  In contrast, Ryan Coon is positively jovial as Turpin’s sidekick, Beadle Bamford.  Coon also contributes a gorgeous tenor to multiple harmonies throughout the show.  In another antagonistic role, David A. Blair is also effective as Sweeney’s street-hustling competition, Adolfo Pirelli, while also bringing a gorgeous voice to the ongoing ballad that drives the show.

 

Within the murder and darkness of Sweeney, you need to have a ray of light.  Aaron Stephens and Carolyn Lupin provide this as the young lovers, Anthony and Johanna.  Both exude innocence and hope for the future, which becomes more and more necessary as the play progresses.  In particular, Lupin’s crystal soprano sings of youth and desire for freedom.

 

Their youthful hope, however, is effectively counteracted by Katrina Murphy’s mysterious Beggar Woman.  Murphy comes off as the loss of that youthful innocence, with a similar soprano voice and her long, dirty blonde hair.  Her Beggar Woman seems more than physically desperate; she is mentally unsound, making the conclusion of her sad story even more tragic.  In a similar story arc of youth destroyed, Ricky Abilez is strong in the role of the young Tobias Ragg.  In this version, we know his fate from the beginning, and Abiliez smoothly helps us see Toby’s transition.

 

Stephen John gambled a bit with his minimalist set design.  The action takes place mostly on the lower level, with the barber shop and Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop occupying the same space on stage, marked by the placement of set pieces, which is quite unusual.  The design works in the sense that it focuses the audience on the performances rather than special effects or intricate props, yet it tends to diminish some of the show’s central points.

 

An important piece of the action revolves around Sweeney’s victims dropping from his chair directly into the bake house below, and so the design somewhat cuts off this layer.  Both the barber chair and the bake house oven are in many ways vital characters in their own rights, but we are unable to feel their full effect without the extra layer.

 

And yet, with such strong performances, that is only nit-picking details.  This cast delivers the Victorian legend of Sweeney Todd with faith and strength.  There is a precision in their demeanor and purity to their vocals that easily pours through the entire evening and leaves the audience on the edge of their seats.  This October is a wonderful time to return to the foggy streets of London, sit back in your favorite barber’s chair, and Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd.

 

 

Production Details:

What: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

When: October 8-23. Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 pm; Sundays 3:00 pm.

Where:  Curtis Theater

1 Civic Center Dr.

Brea, CA 92821

Tickets: Can be purchased Here.