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A CurtainUp Review
The Witch of Edmonton
But sometimes the whole isn't more than the sum of its parts after all, and when one major part — the play itself— is inferior, every other part is going to have a hard time compensating. RBT is up to its usual standards of performance in its production of The Witch of Edmonton, and the externals (the excellent costumes and set and the solid music) are as good as always. But the play's the thing, and no amount of solid performances or inspired staging is going to change one basic fact: this is a nasty, often petty play about nasty, often petty people.
The seldom-performed Witch of Edmonton is unusual among Jacobean dramas, one of the few so-called "domestic tragedies" in which the focus is not on the nobility but the common people. Bankruptcy and poverty are everywhere in evidence; even so-called gentlemen like Warbeck (Craig Baldwin) who's suitor to Susan Carter (Christina Pumariega), the daughter of a rich yeoman, have shabby and run-down outfits with torn hose and ripped shoes. Both costume and set design (Cait O'Connor and Anka Lupes respectively) are exceptional in focusing our attention on the shaky economic foundation on which everything rests. The set in particular — a stage with a dirt floor, sinking down below eye level and leading to holes from which devils and witches emerge, flanked by scaffolds of houses — is truly inspired. The audience is split into two halves. One half sits practically onstage in what looks vaguely like a jury box (seats there cost $10 less) while the other is in a more traditional arrangement, able to watch both the performance and the audience-turned-jurors. Given the judgmental nature of the play, this is an inspired choice.
The story follows the life of Frank Thorney (Justin Blanchard), a servant of the knight Sir Arthur Clarington (Christopher Innvar), who right before the play begins marries Winifred (Miriam Silverman), a maid to that same knight. The marriage is intended to head off any staining of the honor of Winifred, who has succumbed to Frank's desires and is with child. But when Frank leaves and we discover that Winifred has also succumbed to her master in like fashion, leaving the unborn child's parentage uncertain, the audience begins to understand that getting a grip on the play's "moral center" is going to be difficult. When Frank subsequently (and illegally) marries Susan Carter to save his father's estate, leaving him with two wives to juggle, the situation gets even more murky.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Sawyer (Charlayne Woodard), an old and poor woman, is under constant suspicion of being a witch by the other inhabitants of Edmonton, who torment her mercilessly. After another torrent of abuse from the farmer Banks (Andre De Shields) she calls upon the devil for help, summoning him in the form of a dog (Derek Smith). He tells her he will help bring ruin to the village and her enemies if she signs over her soul to him, and their relationship from that point forward-which is as disturbing for its sexual content as its focus on vengeance-begins a catastrophic chain of events for all concerned.
Berger rightly understands this play as highlighting Edmonton's erratic morality, to say nothing of its provincialism, and directs it accordingly. The few higher-class characters in the play seldom venture on to the stage's dirt middle, and when they do are sure to scrape their shoes as they return to the relatively higher position of the wood sides, while everyone else spends much of the performance literally crawling or rolling in the dirt and water reserved for the lower classes.
All the actors are equally committed to the show's dark vision-particularly Woodard and Smith, who are really the stars of the show. Woodard brings a forcefulness and sense of righteous injustice to her part, and if her portrayal doesn't make Sawyer sympathetic (who relishes the village's misfortunes), it certainly gives her a fair hearing.
Smith (in O'Connor's best costume) adds a physical complexity to the Dog which is initially baffling but ultimately brilliant. He seems little like a dog when he first drags himself from the ground below, but as the play continues and he staggers around the stage on crutches, rolls in the dirt, barks and growls at the villagers and dances sensually with Sawyer and several ghosts, switching from one part to the other with complete ease, he becomes part of the play's environment, central to its structure. When he declares "Let not the world, witches or devils condemn, / They follow us, and then we follow them," the audience has already been drawn to follow him for a very long time.
The parts, then, are well-delivered; the problem lies with the whole, which is tonally erratic and dramatically lacking. Lots of things happen in the plot, but so little time is spent on the events themselves in favor of interminable speeches moralizing about them that the play often drags. Even worse, though, is the nasty provincialism demonstrated by its writers, who were obviously more allied to the noble patrons on which they would have preferred to rely than the commoners who packed the playhouses to see their works.
With the possible exception of Winifred, all of the characters in the play are dislikable at best and utterly repugnant at worst, whether foolish like Cuddy Banks (Adam Green), foppishly arrogant like Sir Clarington or simply irritating like Susan Carter. Even their motivations are opaque — Frank Thorney's father (Christopher McCann) seems so cold and stand-offish at the beginning of the play that it's difficult to generate sympathy when he's weeping for his son at the end, and yeoman Carter's reaction to the fate of one of his children is so bizarre that it's impossible to find respect for him towards the play's conclusion, despite obvious attempts to push the audience in that direction.
Berger must have sensed some of the play's fundamental meanness himself, since the production script was altered from its original preview draft. There Sir Clarington is actually allowed to marry Winifred, supposedly as a reward for her (!); in its current version he simply gives her some money for her pains. The difference is subtle but telling. Even the Red Bull Theater ultimately has to shy away from the play's darker subtext-that really, none of these people are worth caring about . . .they're only country rubes, after all. I continue to admire the Red Bull's ability to bring long-forgotten or neglected texts back into circulation with such professionalism. But if there's anything The Witch of Edmonton proves, it's that there may occasionally be a reason a play has been abandoned to a pettier, more narrow-minded past.