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'Sycorax' combines witchcraft, stagecraft

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

LAWRENCE — As director of the forthcoming University Theatre production of the new play “Sycorax,” Associate Professor of Theatre Jane Barnette will get to indulge in her fascination for – and ongoing research into – how witches are depicted on stage.

The titular character Sycorax is referred to, but not depicted on stage, in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” She is the mother of the maligned character Caliban, forced into servitude to sorcerer Prospero.

Barnette said she had been intrigued by Sycorax for a number of years. While researching the depiction of witches on stage for a forthcoming book, she recalled Sycorax and cast about for any later works that featured her, à la Elphaba having been extracted from the "Wizard of Oz" books and turned into the lead of the musical “Wicked.” There is a recent book (“Hag-Seed”) by Margaret Atwood based on the character, Barnette said, but she could find no play until she learned of Susan Gayle Todd’s “Sycorax,” first produced in 2008 at the University of Texas.

There has been just one other production of “Sycorax” in the interim, making KU’s the third.

And while Shakespeare’s “Tempest” is set in a timeless fantasy world, “Sycorax” is set in Algeria, Barnette said. Shakespeare refers to Sycorax as hailing from the North African nation. He also calls her “a blue-eyed hag,” a depiction that Barnette and her makeup designer have incorporated into their production.

“We decided to use the year 1989, at least nominally, as our setting,” Barnette said. “The reason for that is that it’s right on the cusp of the Civil War in Algeria … between factions as to the … strictness of the Islamic codes to be followed. It was extremely destructive and very intense. And because the play has a lot of tension building in it, it made sense to set it in a time in Algeria where the people were also coming up against something very tense.”

As for the Sycorax’s makeup, Barnette notes that the Bard calls her “a blue-eyed hag.”

“There's been a lot of scholarship about that,” Barnette said. “Does that mean she's pregnant? Does that mean she's been abused and has a black eye? Does that mean she's tired? Does it mean she has literal blue eyes? But it doesn't necessarily matter. What matters is that she's certainly an African woman.

“To be clear, she’s Northern African, specifically from Algeria. And because you're from there doesn't mean that you have black skin. But in our in our play, the role is played by an African-American woman. And we did have conversations about would we get blue contacts for her? But instead what we've decided is that there's going to be an elaborate makeup design using the color blue around her eyes and that she will have a raised scar right below her collarbone. That is basically a witch’s mark. Her partner, a woman named Clare, also has her own witch’s mark.”

The play has many other original design aspects, from Sycorax and the other characters’ makeup, costumes and jewelry, to the original music created and performed by the cast, to the use of puppetry (physical and shadow puppets) and imagery generated by an overhead projector.

“It is by far the most multimedia show I have ever directed,” Barnette said.

When the show is over, Barnette said, she looks forward to incorporating what she will have learned into her book project. The book’s concept is to explore the depiction of witches on stage, particularly the characters of Sycorax, the three “weird sisters” of “Macbeth” and Medea of Greek mythology.

Even so, Barnette said, the new play does not clarify whether Sycorax has actual magical powers or whether she is merely a troublesome woman of the type deemed witches to deny them power throughout history.

“In in my mind, Sycorax acts as a healer,” Barnette said. “She's like a root worker. But that is exactly the kind of woman who was designated a witch, and still is, in our society.”

“Sycorax” will be performed March 29-April 4, excluding Monday, April 1, in the William Inge Memorial Theatre at Murphy Hall. The March 31 performance is at 2:30 p.m. All others are at 7:30 p.m.

For tickets and further details, call 785-864-3982, visit the University Theatre Ticket Office in Murphy Hall, or go to kutheatre.com.