The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

The Witch is Back: ‘Vinegar Tom’ West Coast Premiere at Shotgun

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Banner by R. Black for Shotgun Players.

“It doesn’t stop with G-d either – the whole book’s gender-biased: a woman’s responsible for Original Sin; a woman cuts Samson’s coif of power; a woman asks for the head of John the Baptist. Read that book again sometime. Women are painted as bigger antagonists than the Egyptians and Romans combined – it stinks!”
– Serendipity (Salma Hayek), written by Kevin Smith, Dogma (1999)

I’m not a fan of people going back to old media and claiming it “predicted” things. Usually, this is done by some alt-Right asshole claiming a forgettable flick like PCU “predicted over-sensitive SJWs”. (Seriously, that’s an actual claim made these days – look it up at your own peril.) On that note, I recently rewatched Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Western Unforgiven. The film opens with a sex worker brutally beaten and disfigured by a customer. The usually-harsh sheriff (Gene Hackman) shows the customer and his accomplice leniency, arguing “It ain’t like they was [..] bad men. They was just hard-workin’ boys that was foolish.”

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Things have taken a turn for Alice (Megan Trout) and her mother, Joan (Celia Maurice). Photo by Ben Krantz

This wasn’t a prediction about contemporary headlines of brutal attacks on women going unpunished because the perpetrators were “nice boys”. Rather, it was the dramatization of a problem that existed in the time portrayed in the film, in the year the film was released, and is still a problem today. A world that hates women doesn’t even both to justify why it does the terrible things it does.

British playwright Caryl Churchill wrote Vinegar Tom knowing that the world’s regard for women hasn’t changed much since the 1600s. Like that other famous play about witch trials, Churchill looked at what she saw in her homeland and transferred her terror to the page. But Churchill’s play seems almost like a response to Miller’s Pulitzer-winner, much the way Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs took on Jean Genet’s The Blacks. Churchill’s play matches Miller’s in its examination of puritanical hypocrisy and sympathizing with societal pariahs, but Churchill’s reverses Miller’s poorly-aged gender politics. (Full disclosure: several years ago, I acted in a production of The Crucible for which Ariel Craft, director of this production, served as assistant director.)

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That’s the point Churchill makes, subtle or not (mostly not): her women aren’t punished for any particular thing they’ve done wrong; they’re punished for being women. It shouts at us that the only thing worse than men using that sexism against women is when women use it against one another. In a world looking for someone to blame – for everything from a dying livestock to a man’s erectile disfunction – women make the perfect scapegoats because, in a patriarchal society, everything they do is assumed to be the wrong thing.

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Margery (Jennifer McGeorge, left) and Jack (Dov Hassan, right) turn to Ellen (Sam Jackson, center) out of desperation. Photo by Ben Krantz

The term “witch” is thrown around as a scathing epithet, but the definitive feature of a witch is her power. When Alice’s (Shotgun superstar Megan Trout, in another winning performance) affair with the eponymous Tom becomes public, finds herself on the wrong side of the witch-hunt. It puts her in a position where whatever power she had, real or imagined, is taken away from her. So she grasps for power by embracing the word: “I’m not a witch,” she says. “But I wish I were.”

Her best friend and confidante, Susan (Amanda Farbstein, whom I don’t believe I’ve seen before), has no such inner-strength. She’ll gladly follow Alice to a local healer so that Susan can terminate an unplanned pregnancy, but she’s also first to turn against Alice when a renowned judge (a terrifying Sarah Mitchell) comes to their village. The rest of the village needed little convincing, but Susan’s turn-of-face is the most heartbreaking.

Not having read the text, I can’t say for sure what was written by Churchill and what was added by Craft. The story proper is often interrupted by scenes of an all-female Greek chorus who turn institutional misogyny into a cabaret act. It’s incredibly entertaining – even when several mics went out opening night, making it hard to hear certain lyrics – with such lyrics as “Nobody loves you unless you keep your mouth shut.” The chorus represents both the best and worst part of the production.

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Susan (Amanda Farbstein) thinks she’s had one-baby-too-many. Photo by Ben Krantz

Best, in that the anachronistic performances (music by Diana Lawrence, orchestrations by Bryan Eng) never feel out of place, even in 15th Century England. Worst, because the final number is too goddamn long. The story proper ends perfectly, with chorus member Sharon Shao (another Shotgun regular, who doubles here as Betty) giving a lovely torch song solo condemning the audience for their prejudices. (“Look in the mirror tonight/ Wouldn’t they have hanged you then?”) It’s the perfect punctuation on the message of the play and a perfect note on which to go out.

Instead, it just keeps going. We’re given another song, this one performed by the entire cast, repeating the same points better illustrated by the play and earlier songs. Again, not having read the text, I can’t tell if this gratuitous number is the fault of the text or the production. Like the earlier songs, this one isn’t bad, it just has no reason to be there. It’s the point where the show goes from unsubtle-with-a-point to just loving the sound of its own voice. Dropping this final number would make Craft’s production absolutely perfect (and a lot shorter).

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Part of the Greek chorus (Melanie Dupuy, Amanda Farbstein, Sarah Mitchell) singing a song of women with no voice. Photo by Ben Krantz

And I mean that, the rest of the show is tight as a drum. Craft is given both a great cast (including the Bay Area’s own Sam Jackson, who says more with subtle hand gestures than most can say with four-page monologues) the resources of Shotgun’s best and brightest (set by Nina Ball, lights by Ray Oppenheimer, threads by Brooke Jennings) to revive a play that I’d never seen or read before.

The miscalculation that is the ending counts for only about 5% of what is otherwise one of the best shows I’ve seen in 2019.

GRADE:                                                                           A-

Vinegar Tom is scheduled to run until the 5th of January 2020 (Extended to the 19th now the 26th!) at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley, CA.
The show runs roughly 1 hour 50 min. with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

2 comments on “The Witch is Back: ‘Vinegar Tom’ West Coast Premiere at Shotgun

  1. Pingback: Not the Worst Witch: ‘Becky Nurse of Salem’ World Premiere at the Berkeley Rep – The Thinking Man's Idiot

  2. Pingback: Critical Blurbs – The Thinking Man's Idiot

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