look closely. think twice. cut once.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Margin Notes: The Crucible

Elizabeth Teeter, Saoirse Ronan, Tavi Gevinson, Ashlei
Sharpe Chestnut, and Erin Whilhelmi as Betty Parris,
Abigail Williams, Mary Warren, Susanna Walcott, and
Mercy Lewis. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.
The Crucible

Seen on: Monday, 3/7/16.
My grade: A

Plot and Background
In the Puritan village of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, even dancing is considered unwholesome. So when young Abigail Williams and her friends are caught dancing in the woods, they divert attention away - to the specter of witches bedeviling them. What starts as one lie spirals into a wildfire hysteria, as more than 400 are arrested and many executed when they refuse to confess. Farmers John and Elizabeth Proctor, who dismissed Abigail from their service after John's indiscretion seven months prior, fear the vengeance of a spurned girl, while newcomer Reverend Hale tries to decipher the truth from the lies. Arthur Miller first wrote The Crucible in 1953 as both a dramatization of the Salem Witch Trials and as an allegory for McCarthyism. Though received with some critical hostility, the play won the Tony, and is now considered a classic, performed and studied in high schools across the country. It has been revived several times, and adapted for film, television, and even the opera.

What I Knew Beforehand
My high school, like every high school in America, did the show when I was a sophomore (I played Mercy Lewis and have been disappointed in the milquetoast portrayals I've seen of her in every subsequent incarnation).

Thoughts:

Play: It's difficult to watch a play you've worked on before - I actually find it nearly impossible to see productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream at this point. You go in with so many preconceptions of how it should be done (or sometimes emotionally scars for how badly things went that one time), that it can be hard to separate the experiences. However, this production was so consummately well done, that my main moments of "Hey, wait a sec!" were reserved for the two small deleted scenes (for those who care, Abigail and John in the woods; and Sarah Good in the prison). The physical space is both gritty and nonrepresentative (a schoolroom's furniture rearranged to be used as a farmhouse, a court, a prison, etc.), the aural space alternately dreamlike or nightmarish. There are a lot of choices being made here, and I find the majority of them effective - dressing the girls in school uniforms, having the actors playing the Proctors use their own accents to show their otherness to the rest of Salem, making it clear that while the intellectual conflict is between Hale and Danforth, the emotional center of the piece lies in the Proctors and their very human relationship. However, there is one choice to which I still can't reconcile myself, as it seems completely counter to the author's intent - the manifestation of magic (or hysteria?) in Betty's flight, and the destruction of the courtroom. My mom suggested a reading of it that it is the perception of the townsfolk, seeing witchery where there is none; my initial read was the deliberate question by the production of: "but what if magic?" and that's ... that's not what's going on here. And if my mom's reading is correct, then that lens needs to be made a heck of a lot clearer to the audience, so we know whether we're intended to be seeing something canonically in the narrative, or a hallucination. We're not given that lens, and I don't think I buy it. It's an aesthetically dramatic choice, to be sure, but it's not dramaturgically sound. However, I think it's quite the feat that - ignoring these missteps - I was completely enthralled and horrified by a script I knew all too well. This production is excellent.

Cast: A truly gifted ensemble with very few missteps (I wasn't fond of Tavi Gevinson's Mary Warren, but we'll leave it at that). Tony-winner Sophie Okonedo is the emotional powerhouse here as Elizabeth Proctor, and the final moment of the play is hers alone. Ben Whishaw makes a compelling Proctor, balancing his self-loathing against a righteous anger against the unthinking townsfolk. Ciaran Hinds's grave and methodical Danforth provides a balance to the panic of Jason Butler Harner's petty Reverend Parris, while also showing how truly scary justice based on mysticism can be. Saoirse Ronan does solid work as Abigail Williams, but this production in particular reminded me (and the rest of us) how much this isn't actually her story. Sure, she's a terrifying force of vengeance, but - especially with the elision of her scene with Proctor in the woods - there's not much space for a character arc. The rest of the ensemble is bolstered by the wonderfully honest performances of Bill Camp as Reverend Hale, Tina Benko as Ann Putnam, and Jim Norton as Giles Corey.

Design: The design for this show is striking and effective - even for those of us who know the play almost by heart, there are still new horrors to uncover in the framing of the space. Philip Glass's score, combined with the eeriness of Tom Gibbons's sound design, create a haunting aural space where hysteria reigns over rationality. Jan Versweyveld's set - a large classroom full of wood and metal desks, radiator pipes, a wall of windows, a large blackboard - at first seems an arbitrary setting (though, along with Wojciech's Dziedzic's modern-dress costume, is neither objectionable nor an obstruction to the play's power) but reaches its full impact in the final scene, the prison. There, what desks and chairs remain are toppled; the chalkboard is a mess of scribbles, not even words anymore; and the floor is scattered with garbage. The message is clear: this is what happens when people stop thinking.

***

Running: Now playing at Walter Kerr Theatre - Opening: March 31, 2016. Closing: July 17, 2016.
Category: straight play
Length: 2 hours, 55 minutes, including intermission.

Creative Team

Playwright: Arthur Miller
Original Score: Philip Glass
Director: Ivo van Hove
Designers:  Jan Versweyveld (Set & Lighting), Wojciech Dziedzic (Costume), Tom Gibbons (Sound), Tal Yarden (Video), Steven Hoggett (Movement).
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo, Ciaran Hinds, Saoirse Ronan, Bill Camp, Tavi Gevinson, Jason Butler Harner, Jim Norton, Tina Benko, Jenny Jules, Thomas Jay Ryan, Brenda Wehle, Teagle F. Bougere, Michael Braun, Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut, Elizabeth Teeter, Ray Anthony Thomas, Erin Wilhelmi, Joe Forbrich, Thomas Michael Hannod, Allegra Heart, Kelly Hutchinson, Caitlin O'Oconnell, Zenzi Williams.

Sophie Okonedo and Ben Whishaw and Elizabeth and John Proctor. Photo by
Jan Versweyveld.

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