The Witch of Edmonton, presented by Red Bull Theater at the Theater at St. Clement’s, New York City, January 29
Bethany Packard. "Review of The Witch of Edmonton, presented by Red Bull Theater at the Theater at St. Clement’s, New York City, January 29". EMLS 15.3 (2011): 15. http://purl.org/emls/15-3/revwitch.htm
Cast: Justin Blanchard (Frank Thorney); Miriam Silverman (Winifred); Christopher Innvar (Sir Arthur Clarington); Christopher McCann (Thorney); Sam Tsoutsouvas (Carter); Christina Pumariega (Susan); Amanda Quaid (Katherine); Craig Baldwin (Warbeck / Countryman); Carman Lacivita (Somerton / Countryman); Charlayne Woodard (Elizabeth Sawyer); André de Shields (Old Banks); Adam Green (Cuddy Banks); Derek Smith (Dog); Raphael Nash Thomas (Justice); Everett Quinton (Old Ratcliffe / Anne Ratcliffe).
Creative Team: Jesse Berger (Director); Cait O’Connor (Constumes); Anka Lupes (Sets); Peter West (Lighting); Daniel Levy (Original Music); Elizabeth Rhodes (Sounds); Rick Sordelet (Violence); Tracy Bersley (Movement); Dan Scully (Production Design); Diego Daniel Pardo (Voice and Speech); Erin Kennedy Lunsford (Hair and Makeup); Paul Rubin (Aerial Effects); Deb Gauoette (Properties); Jessica Scott (Additional Special Effects and Costume Effects); Damon Arrington (Production Stage Manager)
- Red Bull Theater’s production of The Witch of Edmonton, by Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley, began and ended with Winifred. Although she may not be one of the play’s most prominent characters, the news of her marriage and the revelation of her entanglement with Sir Arthur open the play; she also speaks the epilogue. This production made the character’s function as a frame for the entire drama more evident to me than it had ever been before. Director Jesse Berger chose to turn the epilogue into a cohesive part of the final scene and to follow it with the staged executions of play’s convicted offenders, Frank and Elizabeth Sawyer. In this production, Winifred’s lines could be perceived as both a response to Carter’s offer of assistance and an assertion addressed to the audience. While the concluding executions could have drawn the production’s focus away from Winifred, they ultimately intensified the audience’s sense of her plight. All of the characters remained on stage as immobile witnesses as Frank silently, passively submitted to his hanging on one side of the stage. Then, Mother Sawyer screamed as she burned in flames on the other. As her cries died away and the lights faded to black a single spotlight remained tightly focused on Winifred’s upturned face, which was the last thing the audience saw. As Berger explained in a brief question and answer session following the performance, this emphasis on Winifred reflects his sense of her vulnerability as the female character left in the play whose social position is uncertain and potentially transgressive. Berger sees her as a figure who might become the next Mother Sawyer, the next woman on the edge of the village of Edmonton, without defined ties to others and without a definable role. While Winifred’s final lines express “modest hopes” (Epilogue, 5) for herself and her unborn child and Carter seems to receive her kindly, the director noted that she could become a scapegoat like Mother Sawyer. Although none of the other characters indicated rejection of Winifred through their actions, Peter West’s lighting scheme did make her future feel bleak. The decision to insert the executions between Winifred’s hopeful final lines and the concluding worried look on her face further contributed to this interpretation. As Winifred, Miriam Silverman skillfully handled the emphasis this production placed on her role, conveying her entrapment in the schemes of Sir Arthur and the plans of her secret husband, her conflicted guilt at lying to Frank and her horror at the murder he committed.
- This frame surrounded a highly entertaining production of The Witch of Edmonton that featured many other strong performances. Prominent among these was the work of Charlayne Woodard in the titular role. She first appeared bent over, scrabbling on hands and knees, her body twisted and seemingly weighed down by life, by the sticks she gathered, even by the rags heaped on her back. Her cheek was scarred and her hair teased and tangled. She objected to the abuse heaped on her by Old Banks and others, but her resistance to this treatment was overtly strengthened through her interactions with the Dog, played with a steady undercurrent of menace by Derek Smith. Their relationship was affectionate and sometimes overtly sexual, and this affection led directly to an increase in Mother Sawyer’s self-confidence and assertiveness and to the improvement of her posture. The production clearly demonstrated that she was driven to witchcraft by the cruelty of others, and that her new familiar empowered her. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of Woodard’s Mother Sawyer was that when the Dog withdrew his friendship she did not crumple back into her earlier twisted shape or give way to misery. Nor did she calmly accept her fate. Instead, Woodard’s Sawyer remained assertive to the end. In her final interactions with Carter she delivered her speeches forcefully, and even as she noted, “I have scarce breath enough to say my prayers” (V.iii.48), she retained her strength.
- Describing Woodard and Smith’s interactions also requires a description of the set, which provided a visual map of the state of each character’s soul. Anka Lupes created a traverse stage that consisted of a wooden walkway running all the way around a raised rectangular platform. The audience was seated roughly on the eastern and western sides of the stage. Small, peaked house frame structures sat on the two southern corners, one of which served as Frank’s gallows. On the northern side of the set was a larger frame house that often represented the Carters’ residence and was the site of Mother’s Sawyer’s burning. These structures also functioned as entry points for the actors. The center of the stage was filled with dirt and mulch. The dirt dipped below the walkway level on the northern side of the stage, and the entrance to Mother Sawyer’s hovel was located there below the walkway. The dirt mound rose up to become flat and nearly level with the walkway on the southern end. At the beginning of the play most of the characters kept primarily to the walkway. I make this distinction because the staging soon revealed that walking on the dirt indicated spiritual trouble. The closer a character became to the literal pit, the closer that character got to damnation. The only exception to this rule was Mother Sawyer. She entered from her hovel in the pit and spent her entire first scene in the dirt, even before the Dog entered. This did not indicate to me that she was already damned, but rather that she had always been vulnerable and so becomes the Dog’s first, easy victim, while Frank Thorney takes more time to coax off the beaten path.
- Speaking of Frank and the devilish Dog, Justin Blanchard and Derek Smith gave fine performances in these roles. The Dog did not personally tempt Frank to get his feet dirty, since he, Winifred, and Susan all stepped off of the walkway independently as they prepared for Frank’s proposed journey. But as Frank crisscrossed the dirt, becoming increasingly frustrated with Susan, Smith’s Dog stalked him. After bumping against Frank and receiving his acknowledgement “Thank you for that,” (III.iii.16) the Dog literally led him on and even directed his movements. The Dog served as puppet master: his costume included sticks that were extensions of his arms and provided a visual cue to a dog walking on all fours, and in this scene he made gestures with them. Frank mirrored those gestures, losing himself to the Dog’s malevolent influence as he stabbed Susan. Smith also served as puppet master for Mother Sawyer and used the same gestures to manipulate the illusion of Katherine that tempts Cuddy Banks.
- Blanchard portrayed Frank as a self-aware figure who was neither an innocent victim coerced by his father into marrying Susan nor a duplicitous villain using others for personal gain. Frank seemed aware of and tormented by the potential consequences of his dual romantic entanglements from the beginning. Blanchard also conveyed love for his father and his first wife, Winifred, and palpable remorse for his actions as his concealments unraveled and he ultimately delivered the final confession. As a result, Carter’s expression of sorrow for Frank’s fate, “I did not think to have shed one tear for thee, but thou hast made me water my plants spite of my heart” (V.iii.143-4), felt genuine and unforced.
- The Dog was kitted out in a black tricorn hat that recalled a disturbing dog’s face – with pointed nose, furrowed brow, and widely spaced ears – and black spats that created the illusion of hocks on his legs, along with the aforementioned sticks. Derek Smith’s performance was unnerving throughout. Even during his seemingly affectionate interactions with Mother Sawyer he always remained a bit detached, slyly giving a sense of his real, dire motives. Smith was similarly menacing when he interacted with Cuddy Banks, and this consistency in his exchanges with characters that perceive him in very different ways leads to my only critique of his performance in this difficult role. Adam Green played Cuddy as foolish, but not as a total fool, and it seemed as though their interactions might have flowed a bit more smoothly if Cuddy were given fewer clues to the Dog’s devilish identity, and if there were a few more gestures that indicated friendly interactions between human and animal. Despite this slight disconnect, Green, minus the Morris Men in this production, elicited laughter through Cuddy’s jokes and his dunking, facilitated by a trap door built beneath the dirt on the south side of the set. Yet I found the most effective interaction between Cuddy and Dog to be their last one. The Dog, now in a white version of his costume, revealed his true nature to a genuinely anguished Cuddy. Green played Cuddy’s efforts to persuade the Dog to take up a real canine life in a heartfelt manner. Not only did he reject the Dog’s temptations, Cuddy also truly “pitied” (V.i150) him and worked to persuade the Dog that a life as a hunting dog, bear baiting, or turning a spit in a gentleman’s kitchen would be better. These efforts highlighted the misplaced affection that Cuddy felt for the Dog he calls Tom, and this exchange was what really made me miss some semblance of a bond in their earlier interactions.
- While the Dog of course only donned white for Act V, all of the other characters wore variations on this color throughout the play. Cait O’Connor’s costumes were all approximately seventeenth century in style and all were either white or very bleached in appearance. Sir Arthur’s brocade coat and Frank’s much more worn, even threadbare cape were all faded, while Susan and Katherine wore bright white dresses garlanded with tulle long before their wedding days. In conversation after the performance, Jesse Berger explained that this color scheme reflected the production’s view of the Edmonton community. The creative team wanted it to feel frozen in time, almost as though the clothes were faded because people had been wearing them for generations. This indicated a tightly woven community, but one whose fabric was threatening to unravel. The director noted that it was this sense of a community and the problems of the everyday people who live in it that attracted Red Bull Theater to the play: in previous seasons they had performed plays that featured nobility and royalty, and The Witch of Edmonton offered new characters and issues. The faded costumes effectively conveyed the community’s potentially worn out social conventions. Such a rigidity and failure to change certainly contributed to Mother Sawyer’s undoing.
Since The Witch of Edmonton is so rarely performed, this production gave the audience an opportunity to recognize wonderfully playable moments that might be overlooked when reading the text. I would like to conclude by noting one outstanding example that this performance revealed. I had never previously perceived Carter’s lines upon discovering the body of his daughter, Susan, to be deeply effecting or thematically telling. However, Sam Tsoutsouvas demonstrated how powerful those lines can truly be. As he knelt cradling Susan’s body, her dress now stained red, his insistent observation of her silence “Not speak to thy father?” (III.iii.80), “Here’s nothing to be heard” (96), conveyed deep paternal grief and recalled Lear’s uncertain reaction to Cordelia’s death. However, Carter does recognize his daughter’s passing and struggles to accept it. He leaves Susan’s corpse and goes to help Frank: “I’ll not own her now, she’s none of mine. / Bob me off with dumb show? No, I’ll have life” (104-5). As Tsoutsouvas spoke these lines he expressed fury that the child recently so full of life could be gone and a desire to put off a full acknowledgement of his loss by focusing on – and even co-opting – his living son-in-law. The father’s sorrow and anger conveyed the enormity of Frank’s crime. Tsoutsouvas’s performance forced the audience to see the murder not only as an act imperiling Frank’s soul but also as a crushing, destructive loss for a family. This performance made Carter’s later forgiveness of Frank and kindness to Winifred even more affecting and added weight to his identification with Old Thorney: “We have lost our children, both on’s the wrong way, but we cannot help it” (V.iii.146-7).
- I thoroughly enjoyed Red Bull Theater’s production of The Witch of Edmonton. The company places a special focus on rarely performed Jacobean plays. In addition to their full-scale productions, their Revelation Readings series gives audiences a chance to hear professional readings of new and rarely produced works. These serve as a proving ground, and plays that generate a strong positive reception, like The Witch of Edmonton, are added to the list of future full productions. I look forward to seeing what plays Red Bull Theater will take on in the future, and I encourage others to explore their ongoing fine work.
- Dekker, Thomas, John Ford, and William Rowley. The Witch of Edmonton. In A Woman Killed with Kindness and Other Domestic Plays. Martin Wiggins, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
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Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2011-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).