“I’m like a disease that only I seem to have caught…” begins a jarring introductory soliloquy from Elizabeth Sawyer, the principal character from Witch as played by prolific Boston based actress Lyndsay Allyn Cox. Written by New York based playwright Jen Silverman and directed by Boston local Rebecca Bradshaw, this production is playing at the Huntington Theater’s Calderwood Pavilion/Boston Center for the Arts from Oct. 15th to Nov. 14th, 2021.
“Elizabeth,” a single woman presumed to be a “Witch” lives in what is described as a country village in Edmonton. Amidst navigating a life of persecution and vitriol saunters in “Scratch” who is the devil incarnate as played by Michael Underhill, who previously appeared in the Huntington’s production of Man in the Ring back in 2018. He proffers to her an opportunity for “revenge” against her tormentors in exchange for her soul, nonplused and intrigued by her leery propensity to not readily yield to his protracted cajoling (particularly since some other members of the town folk have already become ensnared in his trap in exchange for their souls). This essentially marks the starting point of interest in this mordant play for the scenarios that resulted out of what could have been a predictable afflicted witch revenge story turned into a complex tale of forbidden love, lust, gender biases, challenging systemic inequality and emphasizing ideologies of “the other” in our society and daring to challenge the status quo of the power structures that has defined our lives for centuries.
“The character of Elizabeth is forcing you to look at the status quo and question it,” explained Witch director Rebecca Bradshaw in an interview with Huntington production dramaturg Pascale Florestal. She went on to say, “That is so important right now, to not get stuck in our own ways or in societal ways and to really think about why we do the things we do.” Ponderings that have become even more pressing during the pandemic inertia while the world was in quarantine.
Playwright Jen Silverman echoes Bradshaws’s assertions that “…the question of transformation, whether or not we are capable of change, how far people will go to feel visible, to be perceived the way they want to be perceived…how we get trapped by systemic power dynamics [and] what it takes to break free.”
This is the first play I’ve seen since the 2020 Covid pandemic hiatus of well, EVERYTHING, but for this purpose, particularly the arts. Amidst challenging times like these, I truly believe that the arts proffers creative altruistic opportunities to be a guiding light in immanent darkness, a beacon of hope in all worldly madness. Witch sets the stage, granted it’s a stage rightfully full of questions but also lays out ample opportunities to decipher a plethora of possible answers.
Right from the onset, Witch casts its spell and snatches our attention with a bold and foreboding soliloquy from principle character Elizabeth as the witch. As she delivered her inauspicious speech, she radiated confidence, authority and control and I, for one, readily surrendered to Madame “Witch” and with marked accelerated heart rate–due to a fair amount of trepidation–was willing to go wherever she saw fit to take me.
One of the most important characteristics of the theater is the ability to be pliable, to shift and reflect what is happening in a precise moment in time. Although this play was written in 2018, it still manages to be relevant in 2021 since we are still facing some of the same afflictions from 2018. The pandemic is still lingering on with Covid19 “variants” morphing into other more deadly “variants,” remnants of a precarious political climate since the contentious election of Joe Biden. There is still much social unrest due to a panoramic number of issues ranging from America’s reckoning with racial justice and gender gaps to abortion rights and rainbow flag communities all fighting for unequivocal equality. Witch becomes a buxom motif for “the other” in a society where not all are necessarily created equal. The fact that Elizabeth as the witch is played by a woman of color, a black woman in particular, was not lost on me.
Elizabeth explains how she doesn’t feel “seen,” how people make uncorroborated claims about her character simply because she’s been labeled a “witch,“ much like some people make uncorroborated assertions about those who have been labeled “black” simply because they are black. Even though this play is based on the 1621 Jacobean era original play The Witch of Edmonton: A Tragic Comedy by William Rowley et al, it still manages to be relevant in contemporary times, underscoring our prejudices against each other, whether conscious or subconscious. It is a grievous reminder that treating some like “the other” is not a present day anachronism that should have been left in the past. It is a present day reality that we as a society ARE constantly railing against so that it does not become the legacy we leave behind for our posterity.
Smart effective THAT staging weaved in and out as if seamlessly, casting that could only be compared to a strike of lightning hitting the same place twice, and a deliciously contrasting tension of the erotic and the demonic sort between the characters, mostly due to a devilishly handsome devil stirring the pot that will ignite towns peoples’ stealthy passions and desires.
Although the staging resembled 17th century England with a Jacobean décor, the dialogue is modern, fresh and sometimes caustic without any “fake” English accents per the request of the playwright. One particular moment of modern dialogue that brought delight and laughter from the audience was when Elizabeth boldly tells the devil that he’s been “talking sh*t” just to give you an idea.
This production is a bewitching Risorgimento wailing for an apocalyptic end to the status quo in a manifested sociopolitical uneven social order replete with glaring disparities. With palpable chemistry between the stellar cast, a non sequitur fight scene bringing the play to a bizarre yet touching crescendo, Existentialist ideologies amidst pandemic quarantined musings asking us to reexamine our purpose, conventions and priorities during our impromptu stillness, ostracized individuals feeling seen and known for who they really are only some of the major themes. There were some guttural laughs and guffaws resounding from the audience including myself brought about by the play’s dark comedic genius or madness interchangeably, made even funnier and even more awkward since I was seated next to an austere male audience member who tensed up annoyingly every time I dared to enjoy myself. I once read that if you don’t like something change it, if you can’t change it, you can laugh at it. Well this play proffers ample opportunities for laughter and more importantly, proffers possibilities for change in the form of a brighter more equitable future. It is a miscible concoction heralding inclusivity and equity for those living seemingly in the perspicuous margins of humanity.
The staging illuminated subtle balances of light and shadow adding to the perceived nefarious undercurrent embodied within this cryptic tension filled drama. It made me think about things. I find it rather questionable how some sanctimonious humans see it fit to torment and torture “other” humans simply because they are different from them. Why not question why you may think you matter more or you matter less than your neighbor? The play argues that it is imperative that we question long established social conventions and disparate hierarchical structures of power; an ideal world would be where power is sought, power is achieved and ultimately power is shared. Is that too much to hope for in an increasingly changing world? Haven’t we progressed enough as a civilization? All marginalized “others” vying for a morsel of the American Dream…perhaps it might prove more viable to “live and let live” as the dictum goes…Is the possibility for equality such a farfetched ideology?
Witch speaks to the empirical manifestation of worldwide protests against societal polarities. The play basically woke me up from a long quarantined aesthetical sleep and catapulted me into the world of the occult, myth, intrigue and the communal hallowed earnest yearnings of humanity striving for something better than what is immanent; compounded by a sterling cast whose astute banter and chemistry ricocheted like a ghostly yet robust echo around the stage, making for tender magnanimous moments of artistic excellence, exhortation and pure exhilaration! This play confirmed why I love the theater. I give this bewitching gem a 5 out of 5 stars!
Jacques Fleury’s book Sparks in the Dark: A Lighter Shade of Blue, A Poetic Memoir about life in Haiti & America was featured in the Boston Globe.It’s Always Sunrise Somewhere and Other Stories is a collection of short fictional stories spanning the pervasive human condition. Their topics range from politics to romantics, from sex to spirituality, from religion to dissension. His latest book, Chain Letter to America: The One Thing You Can Do to End Racism, is available at the Harvard Book Store and world wide online. His CD A Lighter Shade of Blue as a lyrics writer with neo-folk group Sweet Wednesday is available on ITunes and Spotify. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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