A day cannot go by without hearing the accusation of “it’s a witch hunt” by the likes of Trump (i.e., his impeachment) and Netanyahu (i.e., his indictment). How ironic that two male, ultra-conservatives should be crying victim using a term that beckons to a period in seventeenth-century, European and American history when tens of thousands of truly innocents – mostly women – were accused of witchery and usually killed by men who (like Trump and Netanyahu) also followed the heed of the religious fanatics around them. That those falsely vilified women were often unwed mothers, herbal healers, women daring to speak their own minds, or women on the down and out economically and shunned by neighbors as lowly beggars hits close to home of today’s similar targets of scorn by politicians – again mostly men – who decry programs of Planned Parenthood, welfare, or alternative medicines.
In her 1976 play entitled Vinegar Tom, Caryl Churchill lays bare the real reason for the murderous, witch-hunt epidemic that swept two continents for almost three hundred years – men who demand that all women adhere to a strict, confined definition of womanhood where complete male dominance and total female docility and obeyance is never challenged. In his much-revered and oft-performed The Crucible, Arthur Miller attributes the Salem witch purges of 1692-93 to a McCarthyism kind of popular hysteria and mob behavior based on religious-backed notions of Satan’s evil, magical powers over certain women. However, in its current, gripping and gutsy production of Vinegar Tom, Shotgun Players and director Ariel Craft make it clear that Caryl Churchill sees those abhorrent acts as clearly occurring not just due to religious fervor-gone-amok but because men at the time were fearful of any women who threatened their male as king-and-ruler views. Further, both playwright and director ensure through inventive, attention-grabbing means that we in the twenty-first century realize that many of those limiting, damaging views of women accused of being witches over three hundred years ago are still all-too present today.
Amidst Nina Ball’s impressive and powerful set design of multi-layered, unpainted wooden structures connected by ladders and steps and topped by skeletal roofs, the setting of a small, English village of the seventeenth century comes to life before us as we meet several women, young and old, who clearly do not conform to the era’s predominant mold of a devoted, dutiful wife. Twenty-something Alice is anxious to leave that village and her poverty far behind, desperate to go somewhere like London or Scotland. She has just had sex with a traveling man that she sees as her possible ticket, but he is equating their out-of-wedlock lovemaking to an act of the devil and himself as now condemned. Alice will have none of that declaring with some exasperation, “Any time I’m happy, someone says it’s a sin.” When the man refuses to tell her his name and is clearly reluctant to take her with him, she begins to curse epitaphs of frustration – especially when he bitterly calls her “whore, damned strumpet, succubus, witch!”
It is that final name of “witch” that will eventually come back to condemn the independent-minded, fearless, and even a bit reckless Alice. Megan Trout is outstanding in capturing the essence of a young woman who is itching to do more and to be more than her station in life as a penny-less, unmarried female (with a son) allows her. She lives with a down-and-out mother, Joan (also known as Mother Noakes and played by Celia Maurice) who drinks away her life’s sorrows and often goes to her neighbor Margery, to ask for some day-to-day essential that she cannot afford, like yeast. But today, Margery (Jennifer McGeorge) is having no luck with churning her butter, is getting no sympathy and only chiding from her husband Jack (Dov Hassan), and is in no mood to be even the slightest bit generous to the shuffling, tipsy Mother Noakes. Margery’s defiant refusal leads to her older neighbor’s rising irritation as well as an outburst of “Devil take you and your man and your fields and your cows and your butter and your yeast …” – a rattling of words that are later recalled by a revengeful Margery when Jack’s cow dies and the calves in her own legs suddenly shake and give way as Margery falls to the ground.
Other young, local girls cross the paths of Alice and Margery. Betty (Sharon Shao) is another neighbor of Margery who visits after escaping from being locked up by her father and daily bled by a doctor for her “hysteria,” all because she refuses to marry the man her father has chosen for her. The young woman flights about like a wandering, free spirit and remarks to Margery and Jack that she just climbed a tree and “wanted to jump off and fly.” – not the sort of wish “normal” girls who obey their fathers would say. Then there is also Alice’s friend, Susan (Amanda Farbstein), who is married and once again with child, admitting to Alice of harboring thoughts of not wanting this pregnancy (“Devil take it”) when her youngest is not yet a year old.
Alice’s desire for the mysterious man to love her and take her away, Betty’s wish not to marry, Susan’s desire not to have another baby so soon, and even Margery and Jack’s belief that Mother Noakes is the cause of all their woes and pains all lead them to Ellen, known to them as the Common Woman. Ellen is a woman steeped in the healing powers of herbal potions; she is also one with a calming voice and quite sensible advice. Sam Jackson’s Ellen is in many ways the most compelling and believable of all the people of this village. She is one who listens, does not judge too harshly, and offers wise and practical suggestions along with herbal drinks (e.g., to Alice she encourages the restless young woman to “learn a trade”).
When a crusading man and his accomplice show up in the village willing to rid the community of witches for a mere few shillings each, events begin to take a dark turn as neighbor turns against neighbor and as women who do not fit the mold suddenly become suspect. Sarah Mitchell is chilling as a truly evil Packer who is like an itinerant evangelist out to save the world from women he claims have been kissed by Satan himself. He and his side-kick Goody (an equally creepy Melanie DuPuy who is huffy and stiff-necked in all her self-declared righteousness) go to all ends to prove guilt that are horrifying and graphically portrayed in scenes that actually go a bit too long to make their point.
As a modern audience, a lot of what we see in these to-be-accused women looks like people we have at some point known, seen in our communities, or at least read about. But Caryl Churchill wants to be sure we get the point that these women, the ways they are viewed, and the damning effects upon them are not just from bizarre and awful moments of history. Interspersed throughout the story’s scenes are musical numbers sung and danced by women dressed in a rainbow of corset-and-short-petticoat attire (part of Brook Jennings’ fabulous costume designs) – women whose songs (composed by Diana Lawrence), looks, attitudes, and choreography (created by Natalie Green) quickly bring to mind modern-day musicals and settings of Cabaret or Chicago. The modern-era women often are watching from platforms or steps the seventeenth-century action below them, reacting with all-knowing smirks, furious frowns, or open-mouthed in both fascination and disapproval. They are supported by a jazzy, toe-tapping, six-person band under the direction of Daniel Alley that could be found in a late-night, basement nightclub of an earlier-era Berlin or New York.
The lyrics the watching women sing while dancing often in moves Fosse might have created comment directly on a scene just finished and speak to things modern women might be thinking and wanting to say to the male world around them – a world that, for example, still wants to legislate what doctors can and cannot do to protect the health and well-being of women:
- “Stop looking at me with your metal eye; stop cutting me apart before I die.”
- “What’s wrong with me the way I am? What’s wrong with me? I want to see myself. ”
- “Give me back my body. I can see myself.”
This juxtaposition of a somewhat different take on an atrocious historical era with modern-looking/sounding interludes from a tell-it-like-it-is, Greek-like chorus is powerful in message and impact in the Shotgun Players production of Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom. The only downside of the outing is the evening’s length that runs a bit too long with no intermission (one hour, forty five minutes) and a couple of scenes if cut, probably would not dilute the overall effect (like one between two professors of theology commenting on their views of the evils in women – and thus witches). But overall, it is easy to see why Shotgun Players has decided to extend the run of this electric and educating view of a dark point in history that is also excruciating in its relevance to our modern world. This is an early Caryl Churchill who is hammering need-to-be-told truths that are precursors of her later, hard-hitting plays also about sexual politics and societal abuses of women’s rights.
Rating: 4 E
Vinegar Tom continues in an extended run through January 19, 2020 on the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley. Tickets are available at https://shotgunplayers.org/ or by calling 510-841-6500.
Photos by Ben Krantz