Thursday, February 03, 2011

THEATER: The Witch of Edmonton

Between each of Red Bull Theater's productions, one can just imagine artistic director Jesse Berger sitting in a dark corner of a rehearsal space, plotting and scheming, using their excellent reading series to let the diabolical rhythms of their staple, Jacobean theater, sink in. No wonder, then, that their yearly production tends to swing toward tales of bloody revenge: not just because that topic was a crowd-pleaser then (as it is now), but because the machinations and deliberations fit the technical mind scaffolding each of Berger's shows. The Witch of Edmonton, however, is missing that structure. At least three playwrights collaborated to rush this to the theater in 1621, trying to keep apace with history as it was happening, and rather than try to understand the human motivations, they chalk all the evil up to a demon Dog. The result, which promises "Mirth and Matter," delivers only Muddle.

In the first of three plots, attributed by scholars to John Ford, Frank Thorney (Justin Blanchard) has secretly married his fellow servant, Winifred (Miriam Silverman), but begs his lord, Sir Arthur (Christopher Innvar), to hide this fact from his father, Thorney (Christopher McCann), lest he wind up being disowned. As a result of his seeming bachelorhood, however, he is pressed by his father to marry Susan (Christina Pumariega), a sinful second marriage that he consents to because of the massive dowry provided by Susan's rich father, Carter (Sam Tsoutsouvas). In his attempts to run off with the money, he winds up compelled (by an encounter with the Dog) to kill Susan, and to pin her murder on Warbeck (Craig Baldwin), Susan's sniveling former wooer, and Somerton (Carman Lacivita), who still pursues Susan's sister, Katherine (Amanda Quaid).

There's enough here for a full-length play, so it's obvious that something has to give: in this case, it's any attempt to develop character. Susan turns from a sharp-tongued lass, deflecting the advances of Warbeck, into a love-struck girl, and then a melodramatic wife, clutching at her husband to stay a moment longer; Warbeck and Somerton are sketchier than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; for some unknown reason, save that half a dozen other plays of the time did so, Winifred masquerades as Frank's manservant; Arthur, who appears briefly in only two scenes, is rumored to be the father of Winifred's unborn child; and not a single one of Frank's actions seem grounded in anything, particularly love, given how icy and almost aloof his chemistry is with the entire cast. People are twisted out of sorts in order to deliver monologues or moderately snappy dialogues on the meaning of virtue or guilt; it's the op-ed page, in theatrical form. 

Mind you, there are two other plots, too, or at least attributed contributions from Thomas Dekker and William Rowley: Elizabeth Sawyer (Charlayne Woodard), who was once smart enough to have learned Latin, is now an old, withered woman, foraging for firewood on other people's farmland. Old Banks (Andre De Shields), for some reason, cannot stand that theft -- although he relents when she pretends to be a witch in order to drive him back. Conveniently, she soon becomes a real witch (the one of the play's title, though she's notably the B-plot of this affair), entering into contract with the Dog (Derek Smith); although it's ironic that at this point, now that she actually has powers, Banks has the willpower to return with the Justice (Raphael Nash Thompson) and take her to the pyre.

None of these characters have real motivations for their actions, save for bile and other humors, which is where the third plot comes in, disarming us with its comedy and salvaging much of the show. Cuddy Banks (the excellent, born-to-play-Aguecheek Adam Green), the witless son of Old Banks, begs the supposed Witch to help him get out of his own bewitchment, for he has fallen for Katherine. Instead, she leads him on a wild goose chase through the woods, a humiliating and spirit-laden affair that, oddly enough, ends with him befriending the Dog, who he treats simply as a marvelous talking dog. Because Green plays clueless so well, we're happy to go along with his nonsensical adventures with the Dog, and it's a nice opportunity for Smith, who is wise enough to play his role as the straight (albeit sinister) man, to use his physicality to the fullest.

Setting the play (or plays) aside, however, Berger has once again done a fine job with the actual staging. Anka Lupes's clever set places half the audience on stage -- as jurors, bystanders, villagers, whatever -- and balances the wildness and danger of the woods (a sloping, dirt-strewn center) with the law and order of the town (the wooden planks surrounding the dirt, complete with towers and a rather overt gallows). It's fair to say that the show makes more of a statement visually than textually, with Cait O'Connor's costumes speaking to the contrast between the well-off and the poor -- most notably in the ragged raiment of the Dog, who looks a bit like Jack Sparrow. But although Berger handles chaos well, like a chase between Old Ratcliffe and his wife (both played by a very quick-changing Everett Quinton), he handles order poorly, getting bogged down in The Witch of Edmonton's long stretches of talky emptiness.

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