Some say the heart is just like a wheel
When you bend it, you can’t mend it
But my love for you is like a sinking ship
And my heart is on that ship out in mid-ocean
–Linda Ronstadt, “Heart Like a Wheel”
The smoke of burnt bay leaves lingers in the air. A figure dressed in black, complete with hat and veil, twines yarn around the audience. Another, on the floor and wearing a blindfold, unties the laces of my boot, lifts the toe in the air, and licks the leather. In a show that blurs gender, recycles myth, and unravels a tale of witchcraft, the actors make swift work to bind the audience.
Simaetha is a self-described experimental cabaret play, written and performed by Jacob Budenz (aka Dreambaby), running through January 26 at the Carroll Mansion. Budenz shifts between monologue, dialogue, spoken word poetry, and sung lyric, initially taking on the role of Simaetha, the love-scorned sorceress from Theocritus’s Idyll II. Simaetha is casting a love spell that is designed to both bring her lover back to her as well as melt his flesh with flame—a multifaceted desire that is sure to resonate with any member of the audience who has witnessed unrequited love. In a raging ritual, she calls upon a triple-threat of goddesses—Hecate, Artemis, and the Moon (Selene)—while spinning a magic wheel and shouting orders to her servant, Thestylis (played by Alexander D’Agostino), who thrashes in rhythmic, forceful movements that call to mind Luca Guadagnino’s recent remake of Suspiria.
If the spell seems real, that’s because, at the very least, the ingredients are recognizable to those who have ever dabbled in the esoteric arts. The stage is filled from wall to wall, table to fireplace mantle, with occult ephemera. In an update for the times, Budenz-as-Simaetha adds to Theocritus’s crimson wool, laurel, and barley more modern items, including a 7-knob candle, a steel pocket flask, and a selenite orb. Though the source material is a poem from roughly 2300 years ago, the iconography of Simaetha could be lifted straight from the French Quarter of New Orleans. What is particularly remarkable is that the treatment of Theocritus’s subject matter—matters of the heart—can translate so easily to today’s cultural landscape. As Budenz makes clear at the beginning of the show, there has always been some version of a fuckboy, always someone trying to slide into your DMs.
To spell, after all, is to translate: past to present, thought to action, abstraction to manifestation; pen to paper, actor to audience. Spells have the capacity to transform. Like any writing process, it’s an arrangement of intentions—and precision matters. (Be careful what you wish for.) And what Simaetha gets precisely right is its most potent, thematic refrain: that a man as a savior is the greatest myth, the most foolish fantasy of all.