Most years in the fall, the bohemian solar-powered and wind-powered Mercury Cafe puts on a feminist play with an eye for theatrics that asks heavy questions. This year, that play is the absurdist feminist tragedy, Witches & Harlots, performed each Friday of October, with a final performance set for Halloween night, October 31.
Written, produced and performed by women, the play comprises vignettes that take aim at three branches of the patriarchy: the porn industry and its effect on personal and romantic relationships; the government and its infringement upon women’s rights and its discouragement of voter turnout; and the challenges women face when attempting to gain any momentum in the fight for equality.
Witches & Harlots is an absurdist tragedy, a political treatise accompanied by a detailed bibliography, and an outlet for creativity and emotion, all rolled into an approximate hour’s worth of time.
Ranging from witches quoting feminist authors in a dark room to birds delivering the nightly news to Mercury Cafe proprietor Marilyn Megenity — decked out in a ridiculous wig and oversized suit and tie for her disturbing and grotesque President of the United States impersonation — the show is made up of moments of absurd imagination, heartbreak, pain, strangeness and humor.
Witches & Harlots was put together by a group of women equally sharing responsibility and leadership, with a total of five performing in the show. The point is to use an egalitarian approach to sharing different perspectives and to take advantage of the diverse and multi-faceted individuals who are interested in being involved in a feminist play.
Even if it took time to tease out the material and proper headspace for such a performance, the return has been well worth it for the people involved in the show.
“The process was fucking hard,” says writer, organizer and actress Trinity La Fey. “I've been studying sex and gender relations seriously for over ten years, but it was only when I intentionally planned not to do the play last year that it freed me up to do research at a pace and depth that could yield real results.”
Actors occasionally stumble through lines or order of operations, but it’s an authentic and disconcerting experience as is. For something so deeply personal, perhaps adding more polish to the performances would diminish its resonance with not only the audience members, but the participants, too.
“During the performances, I feel everything. I had to edit the audio clips, and still I fight tears every show,” says La Fey. “Knowing the material like I do, I am so protective of it and the original authors, so I cringe a little during all of the inevitable liberties or mistakes that happen during live performance, even the ones we wrote in purposely to update older material. Every show, I laugh out loud at the comedy from backstage. These women are brilliant and have my deepest respect.”
Longmont-based musician Jesse Maclaine — known professionally as Aural Elixir — is one of the performers, playing the piano during scenes and scene changes, bringing a heightened sense of delirium and elements of horror-film scores to the show. The musician has found a project that not only is in alignment with her beliefs and perspective, but also offers her a chance to play horror music, which she loves dearly.
“It worked out nicely, because a lot of my original songs have some thematic material that ties in with the play,” says Maclaine. “I’m also kind of a big horror-movie fan, so for a lot of the Trump scenes, I’m playing horror-movie music. It’s very exciting. It’s like, aside from the Trump part, playing the horror music is my dream come true.”
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With over-the-top metaphors and a cascade of heavy content, Witches & Harlots isn’t exactly an approachable first encounter with feminism. But it isn’t trying to be approachable. More than anything, it’s a rallying cry for those who have experienced mistreatment and sexual abuse from men that learned about sex from pornography, and for those who have had to endure systematic oppression.
There will undoubtedly be numerous parties worth attending on Halloween night, and there will undoubtedly be more frightful fun to be had elsewhere. But if pure escapism is less enticing in 2018, then perhaps the Mercury Cafe is the place to be.
“Showcasing the hard work of the women who've come before, the women who've been working on this publicly and at great risk means the world to me,” says La Fey. “I believe that is what is at stake."