Saturday, October 06, 2018

Devil May Care: Despite a Beguiling Construct, 'Witch' Doesn't Enchant -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a world premiere play
by Jen Silverman
directed by Marti Lyons
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru December 16

For playwrights, and theaters that commission, develop, program and present new plays, I have to assume the following thought routinely occurs: 

Will this be resonant with current audiences?

But current audiences can include men and women of vastly different backgrounds, beliefs, wealth, and outlook, ranging in age from 22 to 105.

Though in terms of sociopolitical matters I tend to find greater consistency among theater patrons--especially in the Chicago area--than the general populace, there can still undoubtedly be considerable polarization among any two attendees, let alone all of them. So socially commentative plays come with plenty of risk.

And while I think there is much of great consequence happening on a daily basis that warrants being explored by talented dramatists, it is certainly understandable if some people want to get away from all that during a night at the theater.

Photo Credit on all: Michael Brosilow
So I can imagine some of the challenge for writer Jen Silverman and Glencoe's erstwhile Writers Theatre in bringing her new play, Witch, to the stage.

Inspired by and at least somewhat corresponding to The Witch of Edmonton--an English Jacobean play written by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford in 1621, which I've never read or seen--at least on a surface level Witch wouldn't seem ripped from today's headlines

Yet without stretching one's imagination too far, the drama, which I saw Wednesday night, can be interpreted as broaching--sometimes fairly acutely, sometimes far less so--the subjugation of women, the haughtiness (and worse) of powerful men, concerns raised by the #MeToo movement, societal and familial reasons not to reveal one's homosexuality, inequities of life under Trump and other quite contemporary topics.

Simply in theory, I would say Silverman--whose The Roommate has been widely produced and who has also written for TV--shrewdly covered both bases, penning a classic fable with nary a mention of fake news, while fitting much modern relevance in-between the lines.

But with due respect to her, director Marti Lyons, all the actors and everyone involved at Writers, in neither regard--as simple entertainment or something profoundly deeper--did Witch, for me, cast much of a spell.

At face value, the play--and presumably the antecedent work, but I won't speak to it here--concerns a woman named Elizabeth Sawyer (Audrey Francis), who is ostracized from her village because many believe her to be a witch.

She is visited by Scratch (Ryan Hallahan), who purports to be the Devil--though he's really just an operative of such--and is offered the opportunity to sell her soul in exchange for wishes being granted.

Scratch also tries to make such a deal with Cuddy Banks (Steve Haggard), the closeted gay son of the powerfully aristocratic Sir Arthur (David Alan Anderson).

Cuddy's ire--and perhaps desire--is targeted toward Frank Thorney (Jon Hudson Odom), who likewise lives in Sir Arthur's castle and is a rival heir, despite not being actual kin.

Frank is secretly married to their maid, Winnifred (Arti Ishak), but treats her rather shabbily, as does Sir Arthur.

Although it is a relatively brief, 95-minute one-act play, Witch includes several scenes featuring just two of the characters, with dialogue that often seemed to run long. 

So although several of the relationships I've outlined hold narrative curiosity, I just wasn't pulled in to care as much as I should have. 

The cast is all quite good--most demonstrably Hallahan, Haggard and Francis--but merely as a old-yet-new soap opera, I wasn't very mesmerized. 

And while Silverman slips in many subjects of modern resonance, that they mostly felt like shallow dips rather than particularly astute dives also failed to enchant. 

Because I have a forum to write long-form theater reviews, I am trying to somewhat intelligently enunciate why Witch didn't captivate me. 

But honestly, although it is rather trite as criticism, if a friend were to ask merely "What did you think?" of this work, my answer would simply be to say, "It didn't do much for me."

I never enjoy posting negative reviews, and especially in noting some glowing ones Witch is getting elsewhere, I hope my opinion doesn't dissuade anyone from seeing it. 

In sum, I admire the effort on multiple levels, but to slip in one more pun, I just didn't find the end result all that bewitching.

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