Snake oil began as a traditional Chinese medicine, particularly effective in easing joint pain. Brought to North America by Chinese railroad workers in the 19thcentury, it was made from the fat of the Chinese water snake — a species not found in the West.
Seeing the medicine at work, western profiteers began manufacturing much less effective, completely fraudulent or placebo versions of a bottled wonder drug and selling it as a cure-all. Sales depended on just how convincing any oily, traveling promoter could make his marvelous medication sound.
This is where Sam Saginaw, the fast-talking salesman in playwright Jayson McDonald’s Snake Oil, begins. He assures the public that his snake oil guarantees “health, wealth, happiness, spiritual fulfillment” and more, much more.
At first, Snake Oil, with Zach Counsil highly effective as the slimy salesman, seems simply a character study of a stereotypical charlatan. Then, like a serpent, it turns into a darker parable that brings to mind tales and consequences of selling one’s soul to the Devil.
Aided by shadow puppetry and indirect references to deals made with the Devil, Sam and his assistant, Rabbit (Sarah Marchand), perhaps his daughter or perhaps a devilish replacement for the child he loved, are driven to continue selling and selling to hasten the collapse of the world.
An interesting 60-minute piece, best suited for presentation at a fringe festival (where it first appeared), Snake Oil is thought-provoking but not entirely satisfying theatre.
Snake Oil continues at the Gladstone to May 5.
By Jayson McDonald
Black Sheep Theatre
Directed by Dave Dawson
This post originally appeared on Capital Critics’ Circle on May 1, 2018 and has been reposted with permission.