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Vinegar Tom
By Laura Hitchcock

ck Witchcraft is in the October air of the Hallowe'en season but British playwright Caryl Churchill's Vinegar Tom uses the witch trials of 17th century England to reinforce the emotional plight and persecution of women before the 1970s feminist revolution. Written in 1976, it marks the auspicious debut of Workshop 360 with a production of taste and power.

The varied permutations of the victims are demonstrated by sensuous Alice and her outspoken mother Joan, property-owners on the verge of penury; simple-minded Betty, who is to be married off against her will; Cunning Woman Ellen, who uses herbs and psychology for healing; and, most pathetic of all, Susan, a housewife worn out by constant pregnancies whose acceptance of Ellen's herb to cause a miscarriage lands her in jail with the others under a witchcraft charge.

The motives are the usual ones. Greedy neighbors Jack and Margery want Joan's land; Jack wants Alice, who doesn't want him any more; the Doctor wants Ellen, The Cunning Woman's, business; the Goody who torments and jails the women wants power; Packer, the witch-definer is on an ego trip; the Man, who opens the show in a lusty scene with Alice, just wants to have his way and go his way. It's today's tabloids with thumbscrews and stake.

This remarkable multimedia production takes Churchill's lyrics and sets them to haunting music by Dave Crocco. With a strong lead vocalist in Cela Scott and backup by other cast members, the band , anchored just off the arena stage, provides a mesmerizing element. Kate Hutter's choreography is an interesting contribution, not a ballet, but modern dance movements that illustrate the subtext.

There are also deliberately unfocused videos on the back wall which take the action off stage, depicting such horrific scenes as the water test, in which a witch is guilty if she floats, innocent if she sinks. This no-win situation and other grisly tortures described with glee by The Goody are the physical components of the frustrating emotional helplessness and pain experienced by the women.

L. Zane's directs with the same asperity and poignance she brings to the part of Joan. Stunning Tasha Ames finds the passion and maddening exasperation in Alice's plight. Ben Messmer plays the sadistic Man; it's a real loss not to see more of him. Tracy Winters and Doug Tompos project the wretched limitations of Margery and Jack, whose lackluster lives leave greed their only joy; Mary Beth Manning is an empathetic Ellen. Gayle Baizer's intricate costumes make statements about each character. The arena space in the Electric Lodge uses simple ladders designed by Mia Torres as backdrop and scaffold. Cori Uchida's subtle lighting adds texture to the event.

Although Churchill has usually used historical backgrounds as correlation to current social-political problems, Vinegar Tom has a curious resonance now. It could be considered not only a bitter exposure of 17th century prejudice but a period piece for the feminist standard of the late 20th century. Its throbbing passion makes it a hardy perennial and an excellent reminder to take nothing for granted, ever.

Workshop 360 deserves a new name. There is nothing in progress about this production. It's definitively finished.

Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Director: L. Zane
Cast: Ben Messmer (Man), Tasha Ames (Alice), Time Winters/Doug Tompos (Jack), Tracy Winters (Margery), Candace Johnson/Cela Scott (Betty), L. Zane (Joan), Azizah Hodges (Susan), John Srednicki (Doctor/Bellringer), Mary Beth Manning (Ellen), David Weidoff (Packer), Arroyn Lloyd (Goody), Mary Beth Manning & L. Zane (Kramer & Sprenger)br> Set Design: Mia Torres
Lighting Design: Cori Uchida
Costume Design: Gayle Baizer
Asst. Costume Design: Lauren Kim
Choreography: Kate Hutter
Running Time: Two hours with one ten-minute intermission
Running Dates: October 10-November 16, 2003
Where: The Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Avenue, Venice, Ph: (310) 281-7920.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on October 25.
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