Friday, January 25, 2013

Something Churchill this way comes

Vernoica Barron, bassist Tony Leva, and the witches of Vinegar Tom.

Caryl Churchill liked to call her script Vinegar Tom (through Feb. 2 from Whistler in the Dark) "a play about witches with no witches in it."  She might have added, "And in which the lead character never appears," for indeed we never set eyes on the eponymous tom-cat who's supposedly the "familiar" of her poor, persecuted characters.  (That is, unless he is represented in spirit by the masculine villains of the play.)

But that isn't the end of what's downright odd about Vinegar Tom.  The show is also, believe it or not, a cabaret - yes, a cabaret about hanging witches - and is studded with quotes from such hair-raising sources as the Malleus Maleficarum, an influential 15th-century tract which advised its readers that "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust . . . which is in women insatiable."

For Churchill, that point was of particular significance, for she has always been deeply feminist in her perspective.  Although I don't mean by that anything like today's amoral, careerist feminism; Churchill is a long way from the slick likes of Diane Paulus or Kathryn Bigelow.  Indeed, the playwright often critiques feminism - unheard of today! - as it's really only one aspect of her deeper concern with human equity in general.

But the f-word looms so far over the action of Vinegar Tom (which was devised in collaboration with the 70's-era collective "Monstrous Regiment"), that it has prompted several (male) critics to complain that the play is didactic. And it's certainly true that Churchill offers us no enlightened male hero, à la Arthur Miller, to provide something like a pleasing gender balance.  But then she doesn't really give us a female hero, either; her victims are as benighted and ignorant as their persecutors (indeed the campaign against female sexuality she illuminates may have its staunchest allies among women themselves).  

No, Churchill's "witches" are simply as helpless as they would have been in their actual time and place (17th century England), and with the resources they had to hand; and we're struck forcefully by their plight because it has rarely been depicted quite so bluntly. These women are essentially chattel in a system designed by and for male desire - and so they are generally unable to own property, have no voting rights, and indeed often lack even the ability to read. Thus Churchill sensibly denies them any rhetorical power; none of the women in Vinegar Tom spout poetry in a pinch like Portia or Rosalind. And as for masculine chivalry - well, even though one of these women is literally locked up in a tower, no one comes to their rescue.

Arresting a Witch, by Howard Pyle
Of course, if "accurate" counts as "didactic" - well, so be it. But even those hostile to Churchill's framing would have to admit her sheer talent keeps poking through her lesson plan.  Her characters are indeed rounded (though rough) and their conflicts operate through full degrees of freedom; nothing in Vinegar Tom feels over-determined, even if much in it feels inevitable.

This is because so many of Churchill's characters themselves operate (or try to) with some degree of personal choice in a world that's hostile to it.  Take Alice, for instance (Becca A. Lewis) - she's a misfit who simply enjoys a roll in the hay. And her mother (Karin Webb) is simply trying to make her own living, on her own.  As is outsider Ellen (Obehi Janice), who sells charms and spells to get by. Finally there's pretty young Betty (Melis Aker) who only wants to choose her own husband.  All these desires bring them into harm's way; their autonomy from men targets them, and the mysterious power of their sexuality offers the perfect pretext for their persecution.

Or to be honest, sometimes the repellent power of their loss of sexuality does.  The contempt men feel for the used woman, as well as their horror of those beyond the child-bearing years, obviously figure in the myth of the witch, and if the Whistler production has a major flaw, it's that it doesn't really explore the iconography of the crone as it should (see Howard Pyle's evocation of one of Salem's victims, above).  Even the supposedly elderly women in this version are hale, hearty and attractive, which rather lets us off the hook of our own prejudices (for what really drives our own desperate cult of youth?).

And then there are the curious songs - delivered here by a coolly stylish chanteuse - with which Churchill comments on and critiques her action.  These are in a fully modern idiom, and are often rendered with rather obvious irony - which makes for a curious contrast with the rest of the material (spoken in thick accents, and costumed in a loose historic mode).  To be fair, though, I'm not sure exactly how any production could smoothly bridge this gap - and the song settings themselves, by Molly Allis, Juliet Olivier and Veronica Barron, proved of high quality, and were delivered with diverting élan by a poised (and pitch-perfect) Barron.

As you may have guessed by now, Vinegar Tom defies classification.  But then Churchill was never one to value formal consistency for its own sake, and the Whistler production is so imaginative, forceful and focused that the rough joints and seams in her conception didn't seem to matter much.   The acting - rendered in a thick but precise dialect - is strong across the board, although particular praise must go to Lewis's knockabout free spirit, Obehi Janice's dignified spell-peddler, and especially the luminous Melis Aker's romantically stricken prisoner. 

The lion's share of props, however, I feel must go to director and designer Mac Young, a protean talent on the fringe who actually built for this production (in a rehearsal hall of the BCA, no less) a full-sized, completely structural - though utterly off-kilter - house frame, whose raw joists make the perfect setting for the scrapes of Churchill's script.  Director Young and costumer Emily Woods Hogue have even dreamt up a trick by which Churchill's witches are hanged, quite convincingly, before our horrified eyes (although they soon spring back to life for a disconcerting vaudeville routine).   Something about this seems just right for Churchill, too. And so once more Whistler in the Dark has pushed the artistic limits of the fringe in unexpected directions.

1 comment:

  1. Despite my misgivings about Churchill's other works,Vinegar Tom is a brilliant piece of dramatic literature.

    As to the songs: I did feel that Churchill's lyrics were very much of the 1970s and '80s and would-- and imagine that they would have had a greater impact on audiences then than now. I don't know if Churchill would consider reusing them in a play set in that era or not, but as they are part of Vinegar Tom perhaps there is some clever theatrical device that would address the anachronism in 21st century productions?

    Nonetheless, this production only whets my palate for more Mac Young-helmed productions.