backstage (2007-41)

Who Are The Witches Now?

Caryl Churchillâ’s Vinegar Tom at the Black Box Theatre

by Matthew Blanshei

While doing research for her 1976 play about â“witches with no witches in it,â” Caryl Churchill developed the â“theory that witchcraft existed in the minds of its persecutors, and that â‘witchesâ’ were a scapegoat in times of stress.â” In her direction of the Actors Co-opâ’s production of Vinegar Tom, Sarah Campbell has in turn determined â“that although we are [now] distanced historically from the time period of the play [the 17th century], we are still connected to the mindsetâpresented in Churchillâ’s text.â”

In their attempt to use the theater as a means of illuminating historical connections that are often easily ignored or denied, the Actors Co-op has produced a play that is designed to put the members of the audience on a state of alert. This becomes apparent soon after the play begins, as the actors seem to directly address the audience more often than they do each other, which prevents us from settling back and losing ourselves in our â“favoriteâ” characters. But what makes this feeling of estrangement particularly effective is the fact that it is not consistently produced throughout the play; on several occasions, the distance separating the audience from the actors suddenly collapses, creating an empathic moment of great emotional intensity. (Rachel Jae Estenson and Amy Hembree build up to these moments exceptionally well with the inflections, pauses and silent expressions they give to their respective portrayals of an ostracized, â“unwedâ” young mother and a â“healing woman.â”)

Following Churchillâ’s production notes, Campbell heightens this alternating sense of distance and empathy by having present-day characters emerge from â“outsideâ” the time of the play at critical junctures in order to perform songs that indirectly comment on an immediately preceding scene. During these performances, Sara Scwabeâ’s rich mezzo-soprano voice (which is accompanied by Chriz Zuhr on acoustical guitar) exerts a tremendous force which can make us feel as though we are watching a film scene that is heightened by a powerful soundtrack.

That is, the songs she performs prompt us to recall the scene in the play which has just ended, only this time the actors and setting appear in our imagination to be more animated and captivating than they actually seemed on the stage. Moreover, the highly charged atmosphere each song produces still seems to envelope the stage after the song ends, which gives a greater degree of depth and vitality to the scene that then begins. This happens in an especially dramatic way toward the end of the play, when we get the sense we are still listening to a song (â“If you floatâ”) that was performed several minutes earlier as we see Joan (Mandi Lawson) crawl, writhe, and curse while â“confessingâ” to be a witch (she confesses in a way that leaves us uncertain as to whether she really believes what she is saying).

The intensity of this scene vindicates Campbellâ’s decision to override one of the few stipulations Churchill includes in her production notes. That is, Joanâ’s confession comes soon after the protracted â“pricking sceneâ” in which the â“witchfinderâ” through an exhaustive process of elimination locates the lone spot on her body that will not bleed when he cuts it (thereby revealing Satanâ’s mark).

In this respect, turning Churchillâ’s statement that â“the pricking scene is one of humiliation rather than torture, and Packer [the witchfinder] is an efficient professional, not a sadistic maniacâ” on its head proves to be effective; the slow, bellowing screams that erupt out of Joan as she is strapped to a chair under the harsh glare of fluorescent light which suddenly floods the entire theater seems to extend the stage into the audience. As a result, watching Packer subject Joan to an enhanced interrogation technique gives the spectators an acute feeling of helpless complicity which is intensified by the fact that the scene begins when a town official addresses them as though they are included among the potential witnesses summoned for the trial.

But Campbellâ’s promise in her directorâ’s notes â“not to let anyone off the hookâ” is also partly broken by the way she chose to direct a central aspect of this scene. That is, it seems the effect on the audience would have been still stronger if Travis Flatt had not portrayed Packer as, in fact, a â“sadistic maniac.â” Treated to the sight of a demonized fundamentalist Christian, the audience is given the cue to relax for a moment and be thankful we have long since rid ourselves of such religious barbarism and misogynyâ"a cue which a sizable portion of those present seemed ready to take, judging by the soft chuckles and appreciative laughter that Flattâ’s performance provoked.

What: Vinegar Tom

When: Thru Oct. 13, Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.

Where: Black Box Theatre

How Much: $12-$18

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