Shows Worth Seeing:
The Witch of Edmonton
By Thomas Dekker, John Ford, William Rowley, etc.
Theater at St. Clement's
423 W. 46th St.
Box office: (212) 352-3101
The Red Bull Theater revives neglected and rarely
produced plays from the Elizabethan/Jacobean era. It has no permanent
home and usually mounts one full production per year supplemented
by a series of staged readings of other plays. I think of it,
however, as doing more with meager resources than most larger
institutions do with millions. Its full production this year,
directed by artistic director Jesse Berger, is a domestic tragedy
from 1621 called The Witch of Edmonton, by Thomas Dekker,
John Ford, William Rowley and probably others. This utterly forgotten
work ought to be seen by anyone still convinced, as most of our
drama teachers taught us, that plays written under the nervously
autocratic Tudor monarchs steered clear of explicit class resentment.
The Witch of Edmonton, about a bigamist-murderer and
a poor, deformed woman scapegoated as a witch, trembles with rage
at social injustice in a quintessentially small-minded small town.
It’s positively eye-opening to see such crowd-pandering
Jacobean authors using their typical razzle-dazzle (witchcraft,
adultery, onstage violence) to do what more comfortably rebellious
authors wouldn’t do for another 150 years: paint a detailed
and disturbingly realistic picture of commoners destroyed because
they lack money, property and aristocratic titles.
The play’s political surprises aside, though,
this production is also splendidly acted, with the entire 15-member
cast finding surprising depth and integrity in their various characters.
The ensemble includes some first-rate veterans, André De
Shields and Everett Quinton, in minor roles that they pump full
of vivid emotion and light. And two central actors, Charlayne
Woodard and Derek Smith, are unforgettable. Woodard as the victimized
(and also guilty) Elizabeth Sawyer never shrinks from her character’s
inherent repugnance, yet also manages to evoke strong sympathy
in the end. And Smith gives a fascinating performance as the Devil-cum-talking
dog who tempts her, breathing physical life into his inner ugliness
by moving about grotesquely with his arms on sticks and his legs
hobbled by bulbous pads. The Witch of Edmonton is as
fine, perceptive and passionate as anything Red Bull has done.
It should be seen while it’s here.