Tall Tale: ‘Spell Eternity’ at Quantum Dragon Theatre

Spell Eternity programme & card

Poster and playing card illustration by Jess Carter

“Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.”
– Terry Pratchett, foreword to The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1998) and The Definitive Illustrated Guide to Fantasy (2003), both by David Pringle

It had been a year since I last walked into the Mojo Theatre, next to the 16th St. BART station. When last I was there I was performing in a show that all involved, myself included, have come to regret. Severely. Thankfully, I had the rest of the year – after months of avoidance – to contact the director and the producer/co-star to let them know I harbored no ill will towards them and would love to work with them again. Still, I wasn’t eager to head back to the Mojo anytime soon.

So imagine my surprise when I got to the box office of this show – produced by an unapologetically geeky theatre company – and was greeted with both the above trading card and an iced beer keg. The keg, I was told, was a leftover from the reception of two cast members who’d just gotten married. I probably should have asked if the trading card was a regular thing for the company. I wonder if one saw enough of their shows they’d be able set up their own Quantum-based version of Magic: The Gathering?

This sort of attention to detail informs Alandra Hileman’s medieval-based script for Spell Eternity. On one hand, it makes for some intricate world-building. On the other hand, one wishes they had this world’s equivalent to a catechism to fully understand what’s being said in any given scene.

Gerda (Marisa Darabi) longs to be a renowned caster of spells. She’s well-read and eager to learn more, but is still denied admission to a prestigious institution for casters. No matter how hard she studies, no one believes she has the natural talent of her roommate Kai (Max Seijas), whom the institution is eager accept.

But fate, it seems, has other plans for these two. When a miscast spell leaves Kai injured, it sends both he and Gerda on separate paths that are more closely connected that either of them realize; a path filled with legendary curses, fleeing royals, and a powerful witch who may be more than she seems.

The audience is simply dropped into this play. What I mean is the play begins in media res, with Gerda waking up sporting a fresh wound. She looks around, wondering where she is and how she got there before she’s greeted by people she’s never seen before. At times, this is what it feels like to watch Spell Eternity. Hileman has taken great pains to detail her world in such a way that the late Gary Gygax would be proud. But if this were D&D, this would be a game for advanced players only – no newbies.

Nearly every line consists primarily of English dialogue peppered with Eastern European-sounding names delivered in rapid succession. With no audience surrogate to ease us into things – like Frodo Baggins in Tolkien’s trilogy or the droids from Lucas’ original trilogy – we’re left to unravel the tangled knots of exposition on our own for 2 ½ hours. It’s not impossible to do (the synopsis above was drawn from my own memory), but there’s a reason Tolkien didn’t write his books entirely in Elvish, nor Lucas his films in Aurebesh.

And there are some interesting story ideas to be found. Among them are the idea that Gerda wasn’t admitted due to sexism (emphasized by Kai declaring “My power got me into this university!” as Seijas appears to subtly motion toward his crotch) and the idea that “natural talent” is more of a curse than a blessing. There’s also a significant lesbian romance that pops up in the second act that I wish had been developed more, as it was the most well-defined relationship of the whole play. These points all hint at a great story buried under a lot of exposition.

Having worked with several of the cast members, I’ll primarily focus on the two leads whom I don’t recall having ever seen before (which leaves out a lot of characters who make up the cast’s ensemble). As the one occupying the stage for most of the running time, Marisa Darabi does well to gain our sympathy as aspiring caster Gerda. She has a youthful inquisitiveness well suited for a character who starts out as a bookworm in a Hero’s Journey tale. Though, when the action cranks up, she seems to have been directed to fall back on a DiCaprio-level of screaming. Max Seijas’ Kai is appropriately smug, but it’s often hard to find him sympathetic, circumstances notwithstanding.

The real standout is company member Genevieve Perdue as the witch Marzanna. Perdue – tall, fair-skinned, raven-haired, and possessed of arched eyebrows – clearly has no problem looking the part (and the costumes don’t hurt either), but she’s equally adept at performing the role as well. “The wicked witch” is a role that, in the wrong hands, can easily devolve into shameless scenery-chewing. To Perdue’s credit, she – and, by extension, Marzanna – clearly enjoys what she does and how she does it, which makes the character so appealing to watch.

Although director Sam Tillis (Quantum’s Artistic Director) seems to want to suggest more space than is actually shown, he often winds up locking the actors in one place on the stage and frequently has characters showing their backs to the audience when it isn’t entirely necessary. And as much as I agree with the use of actors making in-character transitions, it can often be difficult to tell which characters they’re meant to be. With Rachel Kerns’ unchanging geometric set, I guess I just would have liked to see more done.

Better served are costumes by Thomas Ignatius and Hannah Elizabeth. It’s a shame there’s no one credited for props or make-up because they, combined with the costumes, have an appropriate “cosplay” feel that make the production, for lack of a better term, accessible. Especially when the zombies show up. (Yes, there are zombies.) It’s as if it was meant to give the audience an introduction to LARPing, with Sydney Schwindt’s fight direction putting an emphasis more on actor safety (which is great to have) than visceral impact. It’s akin to watching kids play fantasy games that they’re making up along the way.

As we gathered our things after the final bow, one audience members said she’d like see further installments of Hileman’s story. The woman argued that “if Angels in America can take seven hours,” then Hileman’s story should also be given the epic treatment. As glad as I was that someone genuinely had a good time at the theatre, I’d suggest that Hileman scale back on the verbiage in whatever future lies ahead of this story. The reason words like “muggle”, “hobbit”, and “jedi” enter the wider consciousness – some even being added to the Oxford English Dictionary – is because those words stand out in an otherwise recognizable vernacular.

Spell Eternity is the work of someone who noted all the elements of her favorite games and stories, then decided to craft one of her own. The only downside is that it often seems as if she’s telling it for herself alone.

GRADE:                                                C

Quantum Dragon’s Spell Eternity runs until the 6th of May at the Mojo Theatre in San Francisco.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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