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February 11th, 2011

The Witch of Edmonton

Ah, Red Bull Theatre!  How I love thee!  How I dote upon thy twisted tales of depravity, greed, murder, revenge, and sententious endings, in which those few characters left standing reflect upon the sad fate of those who lie, weltering in their blood, at their feet!  How I joy in thy slightly ratty costumes, thy triumphantly sparse scenery, thy state-of-the-art stage daggers and rivers of stage blood!  And how I clap to my heart thy faithful audience, drawn, like me, to the thorny language, the proliferating plot twists and coincidences, the sleeve-worn hearts, the double-dyed villainy, the sheer theatricality of Jacobean Drama!

In other words, I just got my yearly fix of black-and-scarlet Jacobean bombast, and it was a doozie.

Beneath its fantastic window-dressing of witch, devil-dog, and phantasms, The Witch of Edmonton is one of the far ancestors of modern domestic realism.  Its characters are serving-men, chamber-maids, farmers rich and poor, peasants, petty nobles.  They are worried about money, bad harvests, getting the butter and cheese made, keeping their masters and/or their fathers happy.  Their ideas of fun run to getting drunk, eating a lot, singing, making fun of beggars, old women, and simpletons.  They're sometimes nice, sometimes awful.  They're judgmental and forgiving, law-abiding and vengeful.    If Shakespeare gives us the poetic distillation of the human condition, Ford, Rowley, and Dekker show us how individual common men spoke and thought and acted.

This is a great production, too.  The stage is set up with four wooden walkways around a central pit filled with "earth" and "rocks."  There's a withy door below ground level which stands in for the Witch's hut, and a cave the Devil Dog climbs out of.  A good third of the audience sits on-stage, beyond a wooden railing.  The blocking was very interesting.  Witch, Devil, clown, peasants, kept pretty much to the center; farmers, lovers, suitors, judge, nobles kept to the walkways except when drink, lust, anger, lies, or double-dealing pulled them off of the paved way and into the muck.  It was subtly and thoughtfully done, underscoring and clarifying the text as good direction is supposed to do.

All the actors were wonderful--intelligent, nice voices, focused, affecting.  I was particularly struck by Miriam Silverman as the Wronged Maid/Wife Winifred, Christopher Innvar as the creepy nobleman Sir Arthur Clarington who has seduced and abandoned her, Adam Green as Cuddy Banks, the innocent fool who delivers a most moving speech, in which he tries to persuade the Devil Dog to give up deviltry and take up a proper doggy trade (like bear-baiting), and Sam Tsoutsouvas as the decent and downright yeoman Carter, who goes mad in Act IV, but gets over it in Act V.

Best of all, though, were Charlayne Woodard as the Witch, Mother Sawyer, and the incredibly supple and menacing Derek Smith playing Tom the Devil Dog in a leather headdress that was something between a tricorne hat and a dog mask, his face painted red and black, his calves padded out to look like a dog's back legs.  Woodard's Witch was both pathetic and nasty, honestly wronged and embittered beyond redemption--a woman with all the goodness long since kicked and starved out of her, whose only remaining emotion is the desire to make those who wronged her suffer as much as she has.  And Tom--well, he is sexy and creepy and ugly and glorious all at the same time, which is just what a devil should be. 

New Yorkers note:  it's only going to be around until February 20, so get your butts down to the Theatre at St. Clement's.  The cheap tix are on-stage, which means the first row has actors leaning into their faces or sitting inches from them, and every fraying stitch and unraveled braid on the ratty costumes is very much in evidence.  I say this as one who found these points very much features and not bugs, and certainly not in least distracting from this glorious, passionate Jacobean domestic tragedy.

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