BY PAUL RODGERS
IT takes courage to side with the most hated woman in Jamaican history.
Annie Palmer has been vilified for almost two centuries, though the reasons for her infamy have shifted with the years.
Her voracious sexual appetite shocked polite society in 19th century Montego Bay, though it would raise few eyebrows today.
In contrast, her cruelty towards slaves on her Rose Hall estate, routine among planters at the time, is universally despised in the 21st century.
Throughout the ages, though, she has remained nefarious for the alleged murders of three husbands, uncounted enslaved lovers, and Millicent, her rival for the affections of bookkeeper Robert Rutherford.
That she did all this with the help of obeah, pagan magic, has marked her as evil in the eyes of devout Christians.
But a new musical theatre production of her story, written by Jane Crichton, directed by Douglas Prout and performed at the Great House where Annie once held court, aims to rehabilitate the White Witch.
"I never believed she was any more evil than the rest of the slave owners of this terrible time in history," writes Crichton in the playbill. "Surely, she must have become infected by everything that was happening around her."
Annee, as Crichton spells her anti-heroine's name, is played by American Caroline Rollins, daughter-in-law of the current mistress of Rose Hall, with haughty grandeur, passion and whip-cracking sexiness, if a slightly forced English accent.
Her viciousness is excused in a revealing dialogue with Rutherford (the towering Atticus Walker) while her black magic -- intended, she says, only to frighten Millie (bubbly Jessica Cole) -- is shown to be ineffectual anyway.
It was the witch doctor Takoo, played brilliantly by dub poet Ras Rod, who not only committed the murders but also stole the show.
Trembling and snarling with outrage and power, Takoo confronts all who would defy him, transforming a costume drama into something pagan and animalistic.
Set on the eve of Emancipation, the tale captures the tensions between masters and slaves as they interacted in a system that crippled the humanity of both.
Lively comic turns by members of the company playing the house slaves serve to lift the mood.
The musical interludes are full of machete-swinging energy, though several of the songs written for the show can only be heard in the stripped-down versions performed at nearby tourist resorts.
The plot takes liberties with the 1929 story by Herbert G de Lisser, not least in combining the characters of Rutherford's fellow bookkeeper and friend, Burbridge, with his enemy, the overseer Ashman.
The absence of a fire-breathing rolling calf spirit at the climax was particularly disappointing to fans of the supernatural.
And the denouement is more Hollywood rom-com than Shakespearean tragedy.
But the play faithfully retells the core story of a love triangle with two powerful women and the hapless man caught between them. It's well worth seeing.