Sex, sorcery, and power

Philly Fringe 2023: Gunnar Montana Productions presents BLACK WOOD

3 minute read
A light-skinned person submissively, sensually embraces a dark-skinned person in a strappy black ensemble & foreboding face

It was a dark and stormy night when we arrived at the Latvian Society across the street from the Edgar Allan Poe house: a gloomily perfect setting for BLACK WOOD, creator Gunnar Montana’s gothic tale of terror and revenge in this year’s Fringe. In the bar downstairs, our escape from the driving rain, globe lights pulsed against a low, ominous soundscape. When the doors opened, we made our way upstairs, through a sinuous cave of rough stone, into a wood of branches that let us out into a hall painted with the shadows of a forest (set design by Chris Haig). The witches’ rickety house sat in the painted trees to the right with a red tent in the center of the hall. Lights shone through the windows of a house on the far wall, but the effect was more ominous than cozy.

Montana uses sorcery to embody female power. BLACK WOOD tells the story of a coven of witches, but not your local Wiccans or your cat-boiling hag. Feral and bloodthirsty in their tattered black shorts and their white cropped tops, the five witchy dancers enter from all sides and circle the tent at the center of their forest. With outthrust chests and angular arm movements, they proclaim their power. Desirée Naval is a standout, their personality as forceful as their dancing.

Screams fill the hall, and the tent cover is pulled away to reveal the first mangled body of the evening, setting the tone, so to speak. The tent frame of metal bars rises, and the witches perform spectacular aerial work on its frame, stretching out across the narrow crossbars of the base or balancing against the spinning structure and each other in sensual tangles.

The mood shifts when dancer Jessica Daley exchanges her top for a fluttery printed dress. The windows in the background slip away to reveal the living room setting for domestic violence. Montana dances the husband; his scenes of domination and abuse are brutally intense and met with equally brutal vengeance. A tableau of a central masked figure framed by the elk antlers in the hands of the witches sent a frisson up my spine, as did a powerful series of lifts as Daley rose on the witches’ shoulders. They hold her up, catch her when she falls, while the music, “You Are Not Alone,” drifts in the background. It is a powerful, affecting piece.

The third section was a puzzle. To this point, we have a story: the witches show that they wield a terrible female power in the first part, which they use to wreak vengeance in the second part, with the wood as both sanctuary and terror. The third sequence, however, takes place in a web created out of ropes. At the center of this huge web stands a figure, Stephi Lyneice, swathed in gossamer gray, like dusty webs, that she sheds to reveal pretty much everything. Lyneice is a well-known local burlesque performer, and her dance exudes sex, taunting as the witches torment a spurned lover (Frank Leone) in contorted agony.

Nicole Burgio rises from a mist-swirled well, creating beautiful shapes with her legs as she spins, lifted into the air by her hair. The witches cast off their tops then and dance for themselves. It was all pretty spectacular, but I was not sure how the last act fit into the narrative of the piece.

Montana created the production and music design, but lighting designer Dominic Chacon also deserves a nod. We catch the action in glimpses shrouded in shadows or obscured by rising mists that heightened the gothic atmosphere of the piece.

Know before you go: BLACK WOOD contains depictions of domestic violence. Because of nudity and violence, this show is for ages 18 and up.

Above: Embodying female power through sorcery: ensemble members of Gunnar Montana’s BLACK WOOD. (Photo courtesy of Gunnar Montana.)

What, When, Where

BLACK WOOD. Created and choreographed by Gunnar Montana. $45. Through October 31, 2023, at the Latvian Society, 532 N 7th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or for Fringe tickets. for tickets after September 27.


The Latvian Society theater is upstairs, and the entry to Black Wood is through a narrow, winding corridor dressed with obstacles on the floor as part of the experience. There is a stairlift, but it was not in use. The performance features brief strobe and smoke effects.

The event did not require proof of vaccination to attend or masks to be worn.

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