By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Here’s the thing about British playwright Caryl Churchill – if you’re watching one of her plays and find yourself not liking it, then you just need to admit that you, not the play, has failed. You’ve been tested and found wanting.
There’s not a writer at work in the theater with a greater intelligence or a more singular theatricality than Churchill. Not one of her plays is “easy” and I don’t think anyone ever walked out of a Churchill show saying “gee, that was fun.” If you leave a Churchill play without a blown mind, then you weren’t paying attention.
In addition to her enormous talent and experimentation in theatrical style, she’s also one of the most political playwrights around and each work is Churchill blasting out a message to the world. Among others there’s the fall of Communism in Mad Forest, issues of British class and gender in Cloud Nine, the UK’s “special relationship” with the US in Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? and the Israel/Palestine conflict focus of Seven Jewish Children.
Vinegar Tom continues through March 10 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. 305 Forbes Avenue, Downtown. 412/392-8200. www.pittsburghplayhouse.com
Specific to this review is Vinegar Tom being produced by the Conservatory of Point Park University.
The play debuted in 1976 and was developed, as many of Churchill’s works are, with an ensemble of “outsiders,” in this case the feminist theater collective Monstrous Regiment.
The program describes the setting as “Here, now and also in a seventeenth century village.” The show is “about” a witch hunt in a rural British village intercut with contemporary songs performed by an onstage band. These songs feature words by Churchill commenting on the action of the play. For this production the tunes behind these lyrics are supplied by Pittsburgh musician Eva Rainforth. They’ve got a compelling R&B-infused rock feel to them performed with great flair by musicians Emmeline Jones, Braxton McCollum, Chris Knudsen and Tim Judah and beautifully sung by Liron Blumenthal, Elise Dorsey and Caroline Bachman.
Churchill says it was her desire to tell a story – not about witches – but about the demonization of women by the patriarchy. Any woman not married, productive, subservient and fertile was a threat to the hegemony and the whole idea of witchcraft was created and fueled by the need, often coupled with twisted glee, to punish women. That may seem a somewhat obvious notion now, but in 1976 it was a radical way to look at the issue.
It’s interesting to compare/contrast Vinegar Tom with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Though the latter is, rightly, considered a classic, it’s worth noting that Miller used the Salem witch trials to jeopardize his male characters but Churchill keeps her, and our, focus squarely on how women were the victims of any witch scare.
Alice is a young woman who, frankly, enjoys her sexuality and has no problem bedding the men who want her. Her mother Joan is a crusty old crone, poor and unpleasant. Bad things start happening to their neighbors Jack and Margery, the couple can’t believe God is punishing them so conclude that Alice and Joan are witches who have cursed them.
And it goes downhill from there.
One of Churchill’s obvious influences is Brecht and, like him, makes sure we don’t get lost in plot and character; by design Vinegar Tom is difficult and even a little distancing, Churchill wants us to pay rigorous attention to her message and not take the easy out of emotionalism.
Point Park director April Daras is as strong a director as Churchill is a playwright. This is not a script you can coast on and Daras’ intent is driving home everything Churchill wants to say; in this she and her cast have succeeded admirably. Sometimes the dialects are a little thick and I’m not a fan of having a cast do pre-show warm-ups on stage. (Actors do a number of things before the curtain goes up that – trust me – you don’t want to see.)
But with those two tiny caveats mentioned and forgotten, Daras’ production is as urgent and illuminating as you could wish. The toggling between time periods works wonderfully and Daras has an exceptional ability to hone in on the dramaturgical truth of each scene.
It’s a large cast with each actor giving powerful and precise performances and I want to mention Ciera Harding as Alice, Daniel Murphy and Bridget Murphy as Jack and Margery. Caroline Travers is touching as a woman who is persecuted because she doesn’t want to be married.
Isn’t it nice to know we no longer think like that?