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Glenda Frank


"The Witch of Edmonton"
Written by Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley.
Directed by Jesse Berger for the Red Bull
Theatre Company at Theatre at St. Clement's, 423 West 46th Street, NYC.
Jan. 25 - Feb. 30, 2011.

Modern audiences forget that Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas were designed to entertain. By law the theatres could only be built outside of London -- in Bankside and Shoreditch -- to keep the apprentices from playing hooky. The groundlings -- the poor people -- stood for two hours, yet from all reports, the theatres still were crowded. As for those who had more than two pennies to rub together, most sat on uncomfortable wooden benches. So the playwrights -- who were competing with bear baiting -- had to keep it lively. The plays were meant to move an audience to tears and laughter -- and sometimes to scare the living daylights out of them with ghosts and witches.

Since its founding in 2003, the resourceful Red Bull Theatre has displayed a genuine passion for classical drama. It feels its pulse. It is never guilty of museum productions. It also has a wicked sense of absurdity, which make even the darkest dramas fun. But they have outdone themselves with "The Witch of Edmonton," a popular Jacobean sensation, in its first major Off-Broadway production. It not only boasts some really impressive performances, eye-catching costumes in a very loose period vein, hot love scenes, a charming devil, a snarling witch, a duplicitous husband, murder, lies, and deception -- but also traverse staging! The production has already announced its first extension. This is a perfect time to see what all the fuss is about.

The play unfolds in interwoven story lines: Frank Thorney's (Justin Blanchard) marital entanglements and the tribulations of old Elizabeth Sawyer (Charlayne Woodard), the eponymous witch who has found a new companion, the black dog (Derek Smith), which every good Englishman knew was a familiar of Satan. The theme is temptation and we watch to see who succumbs.

The play opens with a passionate love scene and a farewell. Frank has given in to his heart and married Winifred (Miriam Silverman), who is pregnant. Frank thinks he's the father, but Sir Arthur Clarington (Christopher Innvar), who employs them both and has encouraged the match, is just as likely. The duplicity is about to get worse. Frank, to save his father (Christopher McCann) from a financial setback, marries Susan (the totally charming Christina Pumariega), a rich yeoman's (Sam Tsoutsouvas) daughter. She is infatuated and courts him with honeyed words. It's hard to know how he can resist, but he's true to his Winifred and has no intention of staying with Susan. As he is about to ride away on what she believes is a short journey, the black dog visits him, and Frank decides to resolve his marital problems once and for all.

The play turns corners suddenly, evoking silent gasps of horror with each twist. These shifts are totally delicious from the get-go and keep getting better. When the father discovers his dead daughter, his grief is bizarre. He berates her roundly for dying and turns to the seemingly wounded Frank to ask if he will be his son in place of her. What did Jacobean audiences make of this? What do we make of it?

Frank is nursed with great care, and Susan's sister (Amanda Quaid) declares him her brother -- for Susan's sake. But the sister is no fool, and in looking through Frank's jacket, she discovers the bloody knife. (Not much sophistication to these folks!) Murder will out, and Frank is sentenced to be hanged.
The witch is sentenced also although she did not do much to deserve it. We meet her as she crawls out of her home in the earth -- a recessed space between the two connected wooden walkways that constitute the stage (clever set by Anka Lupes). She is bent over, wearing a gorgeous assortment of rags -- crochets, different layered beige-textures (inventive costumes by Cait O'Connor). She curses the farmer (André de Shields) who beats her for gathering sticks to make a fire. Then the devil arrives, a cripple slithering (on seemingly useless legs) up from the dirt. He is filthy but dressed in swashbuckling glory, instantly a contradiction. They talk and she tells him that she loves him, which is often just a phrase of courtesy in Shakespeare. But here the devil hears and responds, rubbing himself with canine affection against her. She's hooked. They talk about her taking revenge. Powered by this new soul within his grasp, the devil rises on rough-hewn crutches, and hobbles about his wicked ways throughout the rest of the play.

Charlayne Woodard and Derek Smith's performances as witch and devil are highlights of the production. Despite the cramped posture of age , Woodard's body and her voice are alive with passion and the longing for revenge. She is a superlative performer who gives this role everything. The lights are brighter when she is on stage. Smith is sexy and crafty; his physical performance is mesmerizing, a real feat. You can't help rooting for them until Cuddy Banks (Adam Green), a seemingly dim-witted farmer's son, turns the tables and steals the show.

His father and the other farmers beat the old woman so harshly even a magistrate feel compelled to come to her rescue, but young Banks is fascinated by the witch and her companion. He visits often, forgives Satan for playing a trick on him, and evinces a kind of dumb sincerity that reminded me of Adam Sandler. But this performance is all Green's invention: his gestures, his expressions, his attentive presence -- every moment is quietly magnetic. He turns a minor role into a subtle triumph. At the end, when the devil tries to seduce him into evil, the simple young man tells him he cannot be tempted. Although he is fond of the witch and the dog, he says, he must turn away. In a play where evil had ruled, this very tricky transition to good seems almost effortless.
The final scene is a directorial triumph. After a long farewell, Frank is hanged, his feet dangling above the stool. And the witch, on the other side of the stage, perishes in a brilliant evocation of fire. Wow!

Jesse Berger, the Artistic Director of Red Bull and the man behind this production, has a cast worthy of his vision. He uses them well. The stage is filled with characters responding to each other, communicating their thoughts and feelings, not just saying lines. And that makes all the difference. The language may be almost 400 years old, but it still has an immediacy and lyricism that is neither obscure nor lost.

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