Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Michael Brosilow.
When the world is at its bleakest, and the only path to the future looks murky and filled with darkness, it can be tempting to give up all hope. But what would you give to find a better path? Would you be willing to destroy everything in order to build a new world from the ashes? As the 21st Century wears on and it becomes clearer and clearer that all mankind is capable of doing is rehashing the same old problems because there are simply no structures in place to allow change to truly happen, why the heck not burn it all down?
Elizabeth Sawyer (Audrey Francis) posits that very solution at the start of Witch, Jen Silverman’s new adaptation of a 1621 play called The Witch of Edmonton by Thomas Decker, William Rowley and John Ford, now playing at Glencoe’s Writers Theatre. And although this play features a castle, an accused witch, and the devil, Silverman has managed a miracle: she has written a play that neatly, poignantly and humorously captures the quandary at the hearts of many in our contemporary world: at what point do you lose all hope?
Silverman takes the characters of the 1621 play and concocts a new story arc using modern language, creating a hybrid that seems timeless because it attaches to no specific era, but she is clearly speaking to today’s world. Using humor and brilliant dialogue, she gives us a take on the old idea of selling one’s soul to the devil. Here, Scratch (as he is called in the play), played by Ryan Hallahan as a smooth young businessman, is trying to transact his deals in a small town called Edmonton where a lot of basic human greed and anger lies beneath a fairly quiet facade.
At the start of the play, he manages to ensnare the souls of two of the townspeople, but when he tries to capture the soul of the woman that the townspeople call a witch and claim she has “danced with the devil in the pale moonlight,” (I keep hearing strains of Jack Nicholson in the original Batman movie), he meets solid resistance: she simply is not interested in his bargains. Naturally, this intrigues him, and their conversations form the key element in this play.
This is not a nice, simple play. It is at once an homage to classic literature and an examination of what is wrong with humanity today. It is also a dichotomous play. It is strongly feminist, featuring two very strong female characters (Elizabeth and Winnifred, a servant in the castle, played by Atri Ishak), and the town’s leader, Sir Arthur (David Alan Anderson) asserts that his dead wife was the one who possessed the real strength in their relationship. Yet for all of this we are also told again and again that it is the other women in this town who treat Elizabeth most shabbily. And then there are the men: Sir Arthur is so concerned with his legacy that he may be willing to dispossess his only son (Steve Haggard), who is a feckless closeted gay man who can’t seem to make his life work, while Arthur’s ward (John Hudson Odom) is arrogant, faithless and utterly narcissistic. Neither gender comes off all that well here.
Witch is, as I’ve noted, a funny play as well. It’s not a comedy, though director Marti Lyons and her actors mine every comic word or action they can find, but a play that finds its humor quite naturally in its characters. A clever writer, Silverman has raised stammering to an art form, and both Anderson’s and Hallahan’s characters have wonderfully fun difficulties at times just getting through sentences. And even in the play’s (longish) fight scene, Lyons, fight director Matt Hawkins and the actors find room for humor amid the animosity that fuels the contest. In addition to Hawkins, Lyons is aided by a gifted group of designers led by scenic designer Yu Shibagaki, whose dramatic set provides a perfect backdrop for the supernatural goings-on of the play. Also, lighting designer Paul Toben and sound designer Mikhail Fiksel (who also contributes powerful original music) create some wonderful effects together.
In the end, though, this play’s power comes from Silverman’s words and themes. It may feel bleak to wonder whether we have any hope left, but it is a legitimate question and concern for our age. Silverman couches that concern in a script that contains the slickest, funniest devil you would ever want to run into, but ultimately the question is whether or not we have dug ourselves a hole too deep to crawl out of. Witch will make you ponder that as it entertains you and leave you talking about what you just witnessed. This is a play that dares to ask not so much whether we should metaphorically sell our souls, but what we should wish for in return. And what, if anything, is enough.
Witch is now playing at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct, Glencoe until Dec 16. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.