The Truth of Men and Magic in Simaetha: A Dreambaby Cabaret

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"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." - Laurence Ross

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.

Simaetha (photo by Alex Budenz)

Once Simaetha breaks from Theocritus, Budenz brings us through the three faces of Hecate, goddess of witchcraft and magic: maiden, oversexed or virginal; mother, the nurturer, the mentor; and the crone, wise but over it all, all but forgotten, alone. In the vignettes that follow, Budenz shows the myriad of ways in which men at all stages give false hope, and deplete, disappoint, and make one feel deranged. Dialogue, poetry, cover song, choreography, and original score are woven together in a dynamic method of storytelling—and it’s worth noting that Budenz’s words and voice both ring, in intervals, with beauty and terror. These shifting modalities allow for not only surprise but for tragicomedy to emerge. In a show that deals with systemic abuse, gender inequality, femme discrimination, slut shaming, and ageism, deadpan humor and comedic juxtaposition manage to make enough room for laughter.

Tragicomedy seems a fitting genre for a show about witchcraft, for what is more magical than being more than one thing at once? When Budenz-as-Simaetha is seated at the keyboard piano, red-faced and raving about a lover who has disappeared for 12 days, she appears as both a sympathetic figure and a sad clown spitefully singing to a naked Ken-doll poppet. She is a holy fool striving simultaneously for creation and destruction. The show, in its queerness, is operating firmly within the aesthetics of camp, raising questions not just of gender and sexuality, but of identity in a broader sense. From this camp perspective of identity politics, Budenz makes a statement by saying that the stages of maiden, mother, and crone are (at least for the witch) cyclical rather than linear. Even in a world of set archetypes, identity is always in flux, always fluid.

One of the strengths of Simaetha is its willingness to reject duality and embrace multiplicity. We can desire men even as we scorn them; we can be despised even as we are needed; we can wear a mustache with a skirt. However, embracing multiplicity is also exhausting. The crone who lives the linear life can forever dispense with love’s games, but if we continuously cycle, we must at some point fall back into the naiveté of the maiden and endure through the whole torturous affair once again. Fortunately, Budenz offers a way out. In the show’s final spell, the audience is asked to write down the cycles in their lives they wish to break, toss the slips of paper in an urn, and watch those gathered limitations go up in flames. Only then are you free to leave.


There are three more opportunities (January 24–26) to see Simaetha: A Dreambaby Cabaret at the Carroll Mansion (800 E. Lombard St., Baltimore).

Photos by Alex Budenz

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