Friday, February 4, 2011

The Witch of Edmonton: Red Bull's Best Work Yet

Let me begin by acknowledging that 17th Century Jacobean drama is not everyone’s cup of tea.

But I am a huge admirer both of the form and of the gutsy job of performing it for today’s audiences that has been the hallmark of Red Bull Theater and its resident artistic director Jesse Berger.

One thing I have been waiting for, however, while attending Red Bull’s productions over the last several years, is for Mr. Berger to display more trust in the original creators of these (usually) tales of sexual obsession and vengeance among the high and the mighty of royal society.

The outpouring of stage blood and sometimes outlandish directorial choices (I’m pretty sure that John Webster did not interpolate a Rodgers and Hart song into The Duchess of Malfi when he wrote it in 1612) that have accompanied Red Bull productions to date have tended to make things rather more off-kilter than perhaps they have needed to be.

Still, what I have particularly appreciated about Red Bull is that it has continued to improve with each new production: better staging, better sets, better costumes, better casting, better performances, and, most significantly, a sharper eye toward revealing the sometimes hidden treasures that abide within these 400-year-old dramas.

Indeed, I get a sense that Mr. Berger has become a true student of Jacobean theater, worrying less about how to bring the play to the audience and more about how to bring the audience to the play.

And so I am quite pleased to say that the company’s current production of The Witch of Edmonton, at the Theater of St. Clement’s, is its best yet—hitting the mark in almost every area, fully embracing the play in a highly engaging production without resorting to the old bag of stage tricks aimed at appeasing an imagined antsy audience.

The Witch of Edmonton itself is a much different play than others from that age. While revenge is a theme, it is not the all-encompassing driver as it is in The Duchess of Malfi or Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. For one thing, The Witch of Edmonton is not about the lusty lives of dukes and duchesses; rather it is what you might call a domestic drama, dealing with the foibles and follies of everyday foks—the good citizens of Edmonton.

The play itself, dating from 1621, near the end of the Jacobean era, is attributed to three collaborating authors, William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, and John Ford, who based the work on a fairly well-known contemporary pamphlet that reported the story of one Elizabeth Sawyer, said to be a witch.

The witch's story is one of three plot threads to the play, making it likely that the three writers worked individually on their parts before combining them for production on stage.  Elizabeth is a poor, elderly, and justifiably cantankerous woman who, for no apparent reason, is hounded and bullied by her neighbors.  She wishes so fervently to be avenged on her tormentors that the devil arrives (in the form of a talking shaggy dog named Tom), with a proposition to help her get even in exchange for her soul.

By being summoned into existence by Elizabeth, Tom is also free to pull his demonic tricks on others. One of these is Frank, who, without the devil’s help, has entangled himself into a case of bigamy, which ends rather badly for the second of his wives when Frank murders her.  Tom hovers over Frank when he commits the crime, but it is unclear whether the devil is acting as a goad or merely as an observer. 

The other plot thread is about a young, rather simple-minded fellow named Cuddy, who also befriends Tom—with a surprising result.

Devil or not, the characters in this play have a psychological complexity that leads us to ask serious questions about the extent to which humans are responsible for their own actions.

While The Witch of Edmonton has its share of bloodletting, these moments are handled with far more restraint than anything that Mr. Berger and Red Bull have shown previously, and the play itself ends on an unexpected and heartfelt note of forgiveness and redemption—hardly the usual stuff of Jacobean drama.

The quality of the performances is somewhat mixed, but the key players requite themselves well, with particularly strong work by Adam Green as Cuddy, Charlayne Woodward as Elizabeth, and, especially,  Derek Smith, who is mesmerizing as Tom the Dog, bringing both his dog-like and devilish qualities to full and disturbing life.

Also worthy of note are the costumes by Cait O’Connor, and the set by Anka Lupes, who has taken full advantage of the small workspace afforded at the theater.

By the way, tickets to The Witch of Edmonton start at $20, and are widely available at discounted prices through the usual sources (,, and to name three). You may have noticed that Red Bull is offering some of its lower priced tickets for seats that it calls “onstage.” This is actually misleading, as the audience is simply seated on two sides of the set. Don’t fear to purchase one of the “onstage” seats; you will not be dragged into the action, and, actually, you may have a better view than those sitting on the other side of the theater.


Speaking of discounts, while you are shaking your piggy bank and deciding whether you are willing to shell out the big bucks to see Robin Williams in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo or Ben Stiller and Edie Falco in The House of Blue Leaves on Broadway, here are a couple of less expensive alternatives.

Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Musical has announced a cute promotion now through March 26th, 2011. If your name is either DANNY or SYLVIA, you can get two tickets for the price of one. Just bring your proof of ID to the St. Luke’s Box Office, 308 West 46th Street, at least 30 minutes prior to any performance beginning this Saturday, February 5th. (This offer is not valid for the February 12th performance.)

In addition, Playwrights Horizons is offering discounted tickets to its next production, the world premiere of a play called Kin, written by Bathsheba Doran and directed by Obie Award winner Sam Gold.

Playwrights Horizons describes the play thusly: Anna’s an Ivy League poetry scholar. Sean’s an Irish personal trainer. They hardly seem destined for one another. But as their web of disparate family and friends crosses great distances — both psychologically and geographically — an unlikely new family is forged. Bathsheba Doran’s play sheds a sharp light on the changing face of kinship in the expansive landscape of the modern world.

Purchase tickets by March 21 with code KINGR and you get a discount: $40 (reg. $70) for the first 16 performances  (Feb. 25 – March 10) or $55 (reg. $70) for all remaining performances March 11 – April 3. You can online at Use code KINGR, or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily), or present a printout of this blog post to the Ticket Central box office at 416 West 42nd Street (Noon-8pm daily). Do note that a limited number of $40 discounted tickets will be available for purchase. Subject to availability. Valid only in select rows.

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