The Witch of Edmonton
nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
February 3, 2011
The ever-reliable Red Bull Theater is presenting the obscure (though devilishly delicious) The Witch of Edmonton, a domestic tragedy that features nothing short of stabbing, hanging, burning, and, best of all, a murderous talking dog. Theatre arcana fans rejoice: we can now safely predict what Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz’s favorite Jacobean drama would be.
Though its authorship is somewhat questionable (it is credited as a collaboration between Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley, but there’s a nagging “etc.” that follows their names to keep things forever tenuous), The Witch of Edmonton is the rare piece of classical theatre that can be pinpointed to an exact year, both of composition and production: 1621. We know this because, on top of it being a relatively uncommon rustic tragedy, its writers based a good portion of their plot on a well-publicized current event—namely the execution of an elderly woman named Elizabeth Sawyer for witchcraft whose story was circulated in pamphlet form earlier that year.
Like most theatrical entertainments of its era, The Witch of Edmonton gives us multiple plotlines to juggle. In this case, we’ve got Frank Thorney, a young man who secretly marries the poor girl he loves but is forced to also marry another, wealthier girl in order to keep his father from the poorhouse; Warbeck and Somerton, two rather crass suitors vying for the affections of the aforementioned wealthy girl and her best friend; the pursuits of Cuddy Banks, a simple farmer’s son, as he, too, pines for the girl he loves; and a “fresh from the headlines” plot involving a destitute woman who sells her soul to the Devil (appearing to her as a literally blood-thirsty talking canine) after suffering too much abuse from the community.
As most should know by now, Red Bull Theater is New York’s premiere classical theatre company, and, as is obviated here, their primary mission is to revive long-forgotten works from Shakespeare’s contemporaries and/or immediate successors. They’ve struck gold here and I shall be forever grateful to them for putting this script on its feet. I was unfamiliar with Edmonton going in, and, for all its macabre spectacle, I found it to be an amazingly rich and complex piece—strikingly modern, really. However, I can’t say that this particular production is a perfect one.
The ensemble is not the strongest I’ve seen, and the play is hampered by a generally stiff and uninspired approach to the verse by most of its younger characters. An air of too-studied recitation hangs about many of the initial scenes—the words are delivered clearly and thankfully we are easily able to follow what could have been some tangled exposition—but there’s not much of a sense of organic passion that could lead to what John Barton would call a “freshmenting” of the words. Instead, what should be the passionate springboard into a dynamic story is rendered a bit unconvincingly.
There are a few fantastic standouts in the cast, though. Charlayne Woodard as the titular witch is suitably tortured and vengeful in her fiery progression towards damnation. Sam Tsoutsouvas and Christopher McCann are palpably paternal as the well-meaning fathers of our doomed ingénues. Tsoutsouvas, in particular, is given some of the weightier moments of the show and he knocks them out of the park with enviable skill, giving us a grieving man whose anguish leads him to heartbreakingly complex places.
Our demonic canine is played with what would seem to be a contradictory purring felinity by Derek Smith that somehow works beautifully. And Adam Green as Cuddy is the ultimate scene stealer, turning in a delightful portrayal of an innocent who forms a childish attachment with the devil dog. Indeed, the final scene between Smith and Green is one of the most beautifully acted scenes I’ve seen in years and they hit just the right notes of ambiguous menace, impotent defiance, and ultimate deliverance that embody this fascinating play.
Jesse Berger’s staging is, for the most part, phenomenal. He makes expert use of the glorious set (designed by Anka Lupes). As is the case for every production of Red Bull’s that I’ve seen, the stage design is not only breathtaking to look at, but it functions as a visual metaphor for the goings-on atop it. Lupes has constructed a sturdy, rustic frame that envelops, but cannot hide, a dark, filthy center. And the wooden railing that dresses the onstage audience seating serves as a subtle evocation of jury boxes and an inescapable environment of communal judgment.
However, there are also some questionable directorial choices that stand in the way of some of the comprehension of this already complicated story. For instance, one of the subplots makes use of that well-worn convention of a woman dressing as a young boy in order to be close to her male paramour. This is handled by simply dressing her in a slightly asexual outfit and putting her hair up in a visible bun—frankly, she looks unbelievable as anything other than just a woman in pants. There’s also a hallucinatory scene in the second half that involves one of the actors in drag (the always dependable Everett Quinton) performing some hilarious lazzi that, while effectively humorous, comes across as jarringly nonsensical.
Still, I can easily recommend this show without reservation—and not just for the fact that, for obvious reasons, this’ll most likely be the best production of The Witch of Edmonton you’ll see this year. As I touched upon in a paragraph above, the play ends with some beautifully handled scenes, culminating in an intriguing and affecting parlay of clemency. There is credence to the idea of “finish strong and all is forgiven,” and as I watched these scenes unfold, my quibblings with some of the production’s imperfections were forgotten. Once again Red Bull has rescued an unjustly forgotten gem and given it a solidly professional resurrection. In this era of recycled commercial classics, that’s white magic indeed.