A sad fury burns through Claudia Barnett’s dreamlike and sometimes frustrating “Witches Vanish” at Venus Theatre. Her topic, a fitting part of this season’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival, is the disappearance of women and girls throughout history, whether by crime or state-sanctioned persecution. It also suits Venus, founded in 2000 with a “women-empowered” mission.
In a series of 10 vignettes, Barnett mines an array of tragedies: the modern-day sexual enslavement and murders of women and girls in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; female political prisoners freezing and starving anonymously in the Siberian gulags under Soviet rule; a Jewish prophetess burned at the stake during the Inquisition; an 18th-century French girl, who, legend has it, was abducted by pirates and handed over to an Ottoman sultan; a Cambodian girl, degraded and driven mad by sexual subjugation.
Between the vignettes, the “double, double toil and trouble” witches from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” appear. Two actresses, in sparkling black veils and masks, link arms to become the cauldron, while the other three dance and chant around them. These incantatory interludes grow tired but offer a sly note about women who take Fate into their own hands.
As directed by Venus founder and artistic director Deborah Randall, several scenes carry a strong emotional kick. Vivian Allvin, as a preteen factory worker in Juarez who goes missing, plays the girl with a touching innocence. Barnett has titled the vignette “La Cenicienta” — Spanish for “Cinderella” — a grim riff on the fairy tale.
In “Swimming in the Afternoon,” an imprisoned poet (Lakeisha Harrison) tries to defy her Soviet-style captors. But they manipulate her arms as if she were a puppet, and force her to write propaganda. Harrison brings power and clarity to all her roles in the uneven brew that is “Witches Vanish.”
Yet too many of the vignettes seem unnecessarily obscure, both in Barnett’s poetic/academic writing and in Randall’s busy direction, which overuses puppetry and masks. In Venus’s cozy storefront space in Laurel, Md., simplicity would be the key to power.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
Witches Vanish by Claudia Barnett. Directed by Deborah Randall. Scenic design, Randall; lighting, Kristin Thompson; sound, Neil McFadden; props and costumes, Randall. With Tara Cariaso, Jennifer Berry and Leticia Monet. About 95 minutes, no intermission. Through Sept. 20 at Venus Theatre’s Play Shack, 21 C St., Laurel, Md. $20. 202-236-4078. www.venustheatre.org.