Witch, by Jen Silverman, has some wickedly funny elements to it, as brilliantly portrayed by The Artistic Home at The Den Theatre through December 3rd. As delicious as the humor is, and as much as I adore cynical humor, I am hesitant to label the production a comedy – especially because it is very thought-provoking.
That’s not to say a comedy can’t be thought-provoking. Maybe Ace Ventura Pet Detective isn’t going to make you think deep thoughts, but some comedies do. Witch, however, is in a bit of a classification by itself. It is very powerful and very moving. Director Devon Carson accomplishes what all artists strive to do – she has created something magnificent.
Witch is a modern adaptation of The Witches of Edmonton, which is a 1621 drama written by William Rowley, Thomas Decker, and John Ford. In the story, a poor and lonely woman is ostracized after unjustly being labeled a witch.
In the Silverman version, the devil comes to Edmonton in search of souls. A master negotiator, this version of the devil is quick to strike bargains with some of the men in town. Their testosterone-driven desires for affection and power cause them to give up what is most precious to them with very little convincing. The women of the story, though, prove more difficult negotiators.
Women aren’t treated the same as men. They weren’t treated the same in the time the original 1600s story is set. Nor are they treated the same today. Having faced such discrimination every day of their lives, Silverman’s female characters aren’t so easily swayed by glitter and light. Those that have been treated unfairly in the past are more inclined to be wary of bargains that appear too good to be true.
In the play, Scratch, a fast-rising young executive devil comes to Edmonton where he quickly embarks on acquiring souls. Sir Arthur is one of the castle’s wealthy occupants. His son Cuddy and ward Frank seem easy targets. Cuddy fears he is a disappointment to his father, favoring dancing over the sports of gentlemen. Frank grew up poor, and now that he has a taste of the good life fears losing his new station in life. Fear makes them both susceptible to Scratch’s wiles.
One would think that Elizabeth would be an easy target for the devil. She is already the town outcast, having been wrongfully accused of being a witch. The devil points out how easy it would be for her to exact revenge on her neighbors if she were to sign over her soul. Yet, it is having lived through this mistreatment that makes Elizabeth all the more determined to hold onto her soul. This challenge sparks an admiration in Scratch, going so far as to even be an attraction.
Also in the mix is a servant in the castle named Winnifred. She is secretly tethered to one of the men in the story, but finds her dedication to the union may be one-sided. Her reaction, what she wants in return from the devil to fix this, is surprising.
There are no bad actors in the current Artistic Home production. In fact, there are some pretty good ones in the mix, and a few outstanding ones.
Julian Hester is magnificent as the devil, Scratch. His charisma is almost electric and certainly borders on magical. In the close quarters of The Den Theatre, Hester never breaks for a moment. Every second is focused, with an intensity of divine proportions.
At one point, Scratch discusses his ability to take any form he wants, and why he chooses that of a handsome young man. He used to present himself as an attractive woman to seduce souls, then later as a maternal figure to achieve trustworthiness. However, he has found that the appearance of a young man is far more inclined to win people over. Hester makes this remarkably believable.
Kristin Collins plays the town witch, Elizabeth. She is powerful in her portrayal, showing a strong woman who became so out of years of suffering. Collins and Hester play wonderfully off of each other. There is a scene of intimate attraction between the two that takes on different evolutional identities – from a relationship of passionate lovers to that of a parent and child. It is most effective.
Indeed, director Carson has done an excellent job developing the interplay between characters. Her staging is smart, with an effective and efficient use of the stage. Scene changes are but momentary transitions, with the action moving smartly along at a brisk yet enjoyable pace. She shows the skills of an extremely talented director, creating a true artistic delight. The play has meaning, and Carson uses all the tools at her disposal to convey it.
The fight choreography by David Blixt is absolutely amazing. Even in close quarters, the battle between Decaln Collins’ Cuddy and Ernest Henton’s Frank is phenomenal. Credit goes not only to Blixt for great choreography, but to the two performers for such intense and realistic depiction.
Collins is impressive all the way around in his role. He captures the frustrations and jealousies of a young man of means who fears he can never be someone his father will be proud of. Henton is at his best in capturing Frank’s sense of self-importance which is so unabashed that it is almost nauseating.
Todd Wojcik turns in a nice performance as Sir Arthur Banks, Cuddy’s father. The playwright has provided some wonderfully rich text for Sir Arthur to convey a man plagued by many worries and driven by many dreams. Wojcik takes full advantage of the opportunities the Silverman script gives him to shine.
Ariana Lopez rounds out the cast as Winnifred, the castle servant pretending to be something she is not. Lopez has to translate a lot of emotion, at times without the benefit of dialogue. She does a fine job and creates a vital part of the puzzle.
On the production staff, Britt Anderson deserves praise for their dance choreography. Collins deserves equal praise for how he throws himself into the dance with no abandon.
Costumes are well done by Rachel Lambert. Scenic design by Kevin Hagan is simple by effective. Lighting design is by Ellie Fey and properties are by Randy Rozler. Original music and sound design are by Petter Wahlbäck. Stage manager is Erin Smith, assistant director is Karla Corona, casting director is Kristin Collins, technical director is Tom McNelis, and producer is Kathy Scambiatterra.
At the end of the day, whether it’s for sale or not, what is the value of a soul?
Devon Carson’s masterful direction of Witch for The Artistic Home is a stunning theatrical event that demands to be seen. Audiences will love the genius of Jen Silverman’s script and the skills of a talented cast featuring the star-turning performances of Julian Hester and Kristin Collins.
Witch plays Thursdays through Sundays through December 3. There is no performance on Thanksgiving. Evening performances are at 8 PM and Sunday matinees are at 3 PM.
The Den Theatre is located at 1331 N. Milwaukee Avenue, in Chicago. For tickets contact the Den Theatre Box Office at (773) 697-3830 or visit www.TheDenTheatre.com.
Production photos: Joe Mazza, Brave Lux
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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