At the Writers Theatre Gillian Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Glencoe –“Witch” at the Writers Theatre is Jen Silverman’s riff on a 1621 English play called “The Witch of Edmonton,” written by the Jacobean dramatists Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley. The play was commissioned and developed through the Writer’s Theatre Literary Development Initiative, an admirable program to support new plays.
The multiple authorship may be the reason that “Witch” plays like a drama written by committee. The tone and narrative of “Witch” zig and zag throughout an uninterrupted 1 hour and 45 minutes. At various moments it is a comedy, a melodrama, realistic, supernatural, a family drama, and a love story, along with injecting some philosophizing about the condition of women in society in particular and the state of society in general.
One scene consists of the lord of the castle talking to his dead wife. A fight between two young men starts humorously and escapes into a life and death struggle, ending with an unexpected and violent death. Near the end of the evening a character performs a solo morris dance and the play ends with a monologue delivered by the Devil that takes a glum view of the human condition. Taken individually, there is a lot of watchable scenes on the Gillian stage. Collectively, the gears kept shifting too often.
Silverman adopted three of the original characters for her play. Frank Thorney is a laborer working for Sir Arthur Banks, lord of the local castle. Thorney marries a castle servant girl named Winnifred but they keep the marriage secret. The witch of the title is Elizabeth Sawyer (Mother Sawyer in the original). She is an outcast, living alone and feared by the community as a witch.
A central figure in “Witch” is the Devil. In the original the character appears as a black dog Mother Sawyer summons to cause the local population grief for their hassling of the woman. Silverman makes the Devil a smooth-talking young man called Scratch. He tours the countryside offering to grant wishes in exchange for souls. Actually Scratch is more of a junior grade salesman for the Devil. He visits Thorney and Cuddy Banks, the son of the lord, offering to barter their wishes for their souls. When Scratch visits Elizabeth with the usual offer, she refuses him, a first in his career, which disturbs him mightily.
There are comments on the human condition, most of them dour. Elizabeth sees society as so lost in corruption that it would be better if the entire human race were expunged, to be replaced by a better world. Scratch ends the play expounding on his sorrowful view that there isn’t much to hope in life.
The first hour of the play tends to be talking and slow moving. The entire play doesn’t add up to a cohesive whole but the final 45 minutes do profit from an increase in emotional heat and physical action.
The ensemble generally serves Silverman’s script well. Jon Hudson Odom plays Frank Thorney, all greedy ambition as he maneuvers to rise from his peasant status to be the heir of the Banks estate. In the process, Thorney elbows Cuddy Banks, the son of the lord, out of the son’s rightful patrimony. Steve Haggard supplies most of the play’s humor, beautifully playing a diffident young man who doesn’t mind yielding his inheritance to the grasping Thorney. Cuddy would much rather be a morris dancer, but the lad does insist on keeping the family name. Issues of legacy loom large in the play.
Audrey Francis convincingly plays Elizabeth Sawyer as a woman resigned to her outsider status but very much her own woman, a feminist in a society that does not treat females with much consideration. Ryan Hallahan is first rate in the tricky role of Scratch, a low keyed and persuasive presence with no whiff of fire and brimstone. The ensemble is rounded out by David Alan Anderson as Sir Arthur Banks and Arti Ishak as Winnifred.
Director Marti Lyons could pick up the pace in the opening 60 minutes but in the final 45 minutes the audience finds itself enjoying an unsettling and absorbing drama. Lyons is assisted considerably by fight director Matt Hawkins, who has choreographed one of the most intricate and watchable fight scenes I’ve ever seen.
Yu Shibagaki’s intimate single set neatly conveys the feeling of rural 17th century architecture. Mieka van der Ploeg designed the authentic-looking costumes. Paul Toben designed the atmospheric lighting and Mikhail Fiksel handles the sound design and original music. Katie Spelman choreographed Steve Haggard’s athletic and curiously somber morris dance.
“Witch” will be most interesting to audiences willing to immerse themselves in a chancy but adventurous play. It’s not perfect and some viewers may take more social commentary out of the production than I did, but at its best “Witch” is variously absorbing, humorous, and unsettling.
The show gets a rating of. October 2018
“Witch” runs through December 16 at the Writers Theatre Gillian Theatre, 325 Tudor Court. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m. (with selected Wednesday 3 p.m. matinees), Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $80. Call 847 242 6000 or visit www.writerstheatrre.org.
Contact Dan at:ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com October 2018
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