Review: “Witch”

Jon Hudson Odom (L to R), David Alan Anderson, Arti Ishak, and Steve Haggard performing in “Witch.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Writers Theatre,
Gillian Theatre,
325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through Dec. 16
Tickets: $35-$80
Phone: 847-242-6000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Scratch meets his match in the world premiere of Jen Silverman’s whip-smart “Witch” in Writers Theatre’s intimate Gillian Theatre.

Inspired by “The Witch of Edmonton,” written in 1621 by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, and John Ford, and commissioned by Writers’ Literary Development Initiative, Silverman merges classic and contemporary to create a 95-minute feminist existential tragicomedy that is extremely funny but also weighs the merits of hope and despair. She keeps the original’s structure of separate plots, some of the characters, and the Jacobean setting, but virtually everything else is transformed, and the language and themes are thoroughly modern and relevant for our own times.

The play opens with Elizabeth Sawyer (the terrific Audrey Francis), the witch of the title, positing a profound question that will permeate the evening and resurface at the end. If things get so bad that there’s no hope for improvement, she essentially asks, is it better to burn everything down and start over?

Called a “witch” and ostracized by the people of Edmonton who blame her for every evil though she’s done nothing wrong, Elizabeth lives in isolation in a hut. Then the Devil comes to call, or rather Scratch (Ryan Hallahan), who at one point describes himself as sort of a junior salesman for the Devil’s team. He offers her a deal, ticking off a variety of wishes he can grant in exchange for her soul. But she turns him down—and he’s intrigued.

Before Scratch’s visit to Elizabeth, however, we see his easy success with two men in Edmonton, both of whom are connected to the widowed lord of the castle, Sir Arthur Banks (David Alan Anderson). Cuddy Banks (Steve Haggard) is his son, who cannot communicate with his macho father and just wants to be a Morris dancer (here, code for being a closeted gay man). Frank Thorney (Jon Hudson Odom) is an ambitious peasant who has ingratiated himself with Sir Arthur and hopes to be made his heir, inherit the castle and lands, and all that. Cuddy is jealous, though it turns out he’s more concerned about keeping the family name than the property, and his feelings about Frank are more complicated than they at first seem.

Anyway, Cuddy sells his soul to get Frank out of the way, and Frank sells his soul in exchange for inheriting Sir Arthur’s goods and title. But there’s a catch: Sir Arthur adopts Frank but wants him to marry a woman of his choice to insure his legacy with a grandson, something Cuddy is unlikely to give him. Unfortunately, Frank is secretly married to Winnifred (Arti Ishak), his long-time sweetheart who comes to work as a maid at the castle to be near him and is treated like dirt by Sr. Arthur. She also tells Frank she’s pregnant with his child, but he’s much more concerned about his future than hers.

The details of the relationships are revealed in scenes that alternate between Sir Arthur and the two men   feasting in the castle dining room under the watchful portrait of the lord’s beloved dead wife, who apparently ruled the roost, and Elizabeth’s hut, where Scratch repeatedly returns at night to share drinks and conversation. He soon goes “off the clock” so she’ll talk freely (as does he), and we learn the back story of her being dubbed a witch, as well as the reason she’s reluctant to sell her soul. Scratch becomes so enthralled that he forgets his devilish duties. (It doesn’t hurt that, unlike in the Jacobean play, where she’s an old woman who summons a devil of a nasty black dog, she is a stunning woman and he is a handsome young man.)

The two plots don’t dovetail until near the end of the play in events that are shockingly tragic, senseless, and very sad. They cause Elizabeth to change her mind, and the devil, who seemed on the verge of hope, to have a last word tinged with despair.

Yu Shubagaki’s quasi-Jacobean scenic design serves the shifting scenes fairly well, though the repeated moving on and off stage of the heavy dining room table slows things down a bit too much. Paul Toben’s lighting and Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design and music add atmosphere, while Mieka van der Ploeg’s subtly updated costumes suggest where and when we are—and are not. Kudos go to Matt Hawkins for a harrowing fight and to choreographer Katie Spelman for a remarkable Morris dance.

There’s not much else to say except: Go see “Witch.” You won’t be disappointed.