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The Devil meets his match in Geffen’s “Witch”

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Maura Tierney and Evan Jonigkeit negotiate terms in “Witch” at the Geffen Playhouse (Photo by Jeff Lorch).

When you have no hope left, and the devil wants to buy your soul, what do you ask from him in return?

That’s the question posed in “Witch,” the Jen Silverman-penned play running now in its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse. Inspired by and loosely – very loosely – adapted from “The Witch of Edmonton” (A Jacobean drama by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford), it centers on a woman named Elizabeth Sawyer, who has been shunned as a witch by the people of her 17th Century village and now lives in a hovel on the edge of town. When she is approached by a charismatic young man who claims to be the devil, offering revenge on the townspeople who have done her wrong in exchange for her soul, she refuses him; but when he persists, she agrees to consider it if he can make her a better offer. Meanwhile, some of the other townspeople have made their own deals with the devil; but as their own desires and machinations quickly prove, they are easily capable of losing their souls without any need of hellish interference.

In re-imagining a 400-year-old play through a contemporary lens, Silverman didn’t need to stray too far from its central themes; the original play is recognized by modern scholars for its astute observations about societal hypocrisy, corruption, and the evil that men do all on their own. The update comes by injecting a modern feminist viewpoint (and a lot of very snappy, razor-sharp wit delivered through deliciously anachronistic modern dialogue) that brings out the inherent misogyny of the whole traditional “good and evil” thing. Everything this handsome devil has to offer means nothing to Elizabeth, who has been so burned and battered by the world of men that she has no desire for anything within it. To avenge herself on those who have wronged her means nothing short of bringing down the patriarchy, and everything it has built along with it. That’s a tall order, even for the devil himself.

Silverman further contemporizes the arguments by exploring the effects of said patriarchy on the LGBTQ experience, with the help of a gay character named Cuddy Banks. The son of a wealthy lord, he’s set to inherit a title that comes with the highest privilege and entitlement available to a man of his time; really, all he wants to do is indulge in his passion for Morris Dancing (you can look it up if you need to), but when his father seems poised to pass him over in favor of an adopted heir – one who embodies all the revered qualities of masculinity that Cuddy lacks – he becomes obsessed with standing in the way. Cuddy is shallow, self-loathing, and spiteful, hardly the “positive representation” many of us like to see in a gay character today – but being forced to live a closeted life with no hope of ever being your authentic self without losing the little you already have has a tendency to cultivate those negative qualities.

Ruy Iskandar and Will Van Vogt share a rare non-combative moment in “Witch” at the Geffen Photo by Jeff Lorch).

 

Likewise, being marginalized for your economic standing – a prejudice bound tightly with racism, as underscored in this production by some shrewd casting – can easily lead to a do-anything-it-takes attitude in the pursuit of bettering one’s situation; Cuddy’s rival, Frank Thorney, reveals himself to be capable of almost any betrayal as he parlays his masculinity into a means of climbing the social ladder. He might come off as a narcissist and a bully, but these are the very qualities that have allowed him to get as far as he has, and if he sees no good reason to stop, now, can we really blame him?

As for the devil himself, in Silverman’s vision of the infernal scheme he may be little more than a cog in a kind of corporate machine – an independent contractor or a franchisee, perhaps – whose power and appeal both come from a culturally-approved image of desirability. That this image seems entirely defined by men is not an accident; and that this particular embodiment of its questionable charms, when confronted with Elizabeth’s complete lack of interest, finds his confidence challenged and shaken, it’s not really a surprise.

Indeed, perhaps the most hopeful note “Witch” strikes comes in the relationship between this devil and his would-be mark. He comes to bewitch her, and finds himself instead bewitched, a subversion of the old trickster myth in which Old Scratch is outsmarted at his own game by a virtuous man shrewd enough to use the rules in his favor. With Elizabeth, the game itself is “zero sum” – the rules don’t matter, and the power this gives her over him is intoxicating to him. In an era when the oppressed feel more and more irrelevant within the paradigm their oppressors keep in place, the idea that one of them might actually begin to be transformed is a comforting thought, no matter how nihilistic the context may be from which it springs.

Under the expert direction of Marti Lyons, the Geffen’s impressive production crams a lot of theatrical witchcraft into the small Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater space in which it is mounted; a sparsely dressed floor space serves as the ground for devilish dealings, while a large mechanistic playing platform thrusts itself overbearingly into the audience’s lap to provide the setting for the various complications of the accompanying domestic dramas. The result, if somewhat claustrophobic, is also successful at combining the stagecraft of the play’s archaic origins with a modern, conceptual flow, but has the unfortunate side effect of obstructing a bit of the view from the first few rows. Be aware of this when buying tickets.

As for the expert cast, it’s crucial to single out Maura Tierney’s fiercely calm performance as Elizabeth; she’s the strong pillar to which the rest of the play is tied, and she pulls it off effortlessly. As Cuddy, Will Van Vogt embraces the sissy stereotype in which the character necessarily exists and makes us see beneath it through the brave honesty of his vulnerability; Ruy Iskandar, as Frank Thorney, likewise plays hard into the cliché, every inch the pulchritudinous bourgeois bumpkin, but manages to keep himself just likable enough to regret his inevitable fate. Brian George and Vella Lovell, as Cuddy’s noble father and housemaid-with-a-secret Winnifred, are equally as adept at humanizing the social archetypes they are tasked with representing, allowing us to place our empathy in corners which may surprise us.

It’s Evan Jonigkeit, though, as the self-professed devil who stirs the pot in the first place, who might be the strongest link in the chain forged by this tight, professional cast. Equal parts smooth seducer and oozing huckster, it’s obvious from the start he is neither, and that his true nature, unknown even to himself, has a capacity for much deeper things.  It’s what keeps us interested; ultimately, his is the only character who evolves within the action of the play, and with his every scene he makes the changes visible and palpable.  His chemistry with Tierney makes their work together absorbing, and that alone is worth the price of a ticket.

On the strength of its cast and direction, “Witch” is certainly a worthwhile way to spend an evening at the theater; it’s a top-grade production, full of memorable moments that will spark your thoughts and challenge your preconceived notions.  It will also make you laugh – it never lets you quite forget that it’s a dark comedy, no matter if the “dark” sometimes overshadows the humor.  There are times, though, especially in the second half of its 95-minute runtime, that things become a little didactic; the arguments and agendas of the characters (not, necessarily, those of the playwright, who is clearly invested solely in opening the conversation around them) sometimes feel almost rote – especially when they’ve already been illustrated within the action of the play – and our interest tends to flag.

Still, despite a few dull moments here and there, “Witch” is a strong example of good theatre done right – and while that may not be worth your soul, it’s at least deserving of an hour or so of your time.

 

“Witch” runs through September 29 at the Geffen Playhouse.  For schedule and ticket information visit here.

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Travel

July 4 travel woes in flight cancellations, record number Americans driving

A record number of Americans are expected to travel by car this upcoming July 4th holiday weekend, per the Triple A auto club

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Photo Credit: County of Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES – As the 4th of July weekend approaches, Americans getting underway to travel are facing heavy delays and cancellations amid staffing strains, weather, among other issues with U.S. air carriers.

On Friday according to tracking website FlightAware.com as of 7PM Pacific there were 27,544 total delays, domestic flight cancellations were 2,975 and international flight cancellations within, into, or out of the United States were 571.

(See the MiseryMap for a live visualization of flight delays.)

CNBC reported that consumer complaints are piling up. In April, the latest available data, the Transportation Department received 3,105 from travelers about U.S. airlines, up nearly 300% from April 2021, and at nearly double the rate during the same period last year.

The unprecedented number of airline cancelations and delays is causing travelers to choose to drive and fly. Delta, American Airlines and United are all trimming their schedules even further to accommodate staffing shortages, despite passenger levels hitting post-pandemic highs.

Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have sparred over who’s to blame. Airlines chalk up the disruptions to bad weather, their staffing shortages and staffing problems at the government’s air traffic control.

Yesterday, the FAA’s acting Administrator Billy Nolen and other top agency officials held a call with airline executives to discuss weekend planning, including the agency’s use of overtime to staff its facilities, traffic and routing plans, according to a person familiar with the meeting. The call was in addition to regular planning meetings with airlines.

U. S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks with reporters on Zoom call about flight cancellations and expected delays this July 4th holiday weekend.

U. S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg: “It is time for the airline industry to deliver.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told reporters Friday that, “passengers have high expectations from an industry that we have supported with tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer funding through the pandemic to keep it up and running so that it can serve passengers. Now we need them to deliver.”

Concerned about flight cancellation trends, Buttigieg said he has spoken directly with airlines.

“Something I’ve asked them to do so that if you’re selling a ticket, you know you can back that up, that you have the staffing to do it,” he added.

A record number of Americans are expected to travel by car this upcoming July 4th holiday weekend, per a new report from the Triple A auto club.

Screenshot/NBC News

Just in time for that Fourth of July travel, gas prices are continuing to drop from their record high points of two weeks ago as the Energy Information Administration reports that gasoline stockpiles across the country have increased, according to the Auto Club’s Weekend Gas Watch.

Since Monday, the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline has decreased by four cents to $4.85.

Despite the highest 4th of July gas prices on record, 42 million Americans are driving this holiday.

Travelers Driving This 4th of July Weekend To Avoid Airport Chaos:

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Sports

Welsh Olympic distance swimmer Dan Jervis comes Out

Jervis, who placed 5th in distance swimming at the Olympics in Tokyo said he was inspired by Blackpool FC soccer player Jake Daniels

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Dan Jervis (Screenshot via British Swimming Livestream-archive)

NEATH, Talbot County Borough, Wales – In a recent interview with BBC Radio Cornwall, 26-year-old British Olympian distance swimmer Dan Jervis revealed that he had given considerable thought before announcing to the world that he is gay.

Jervis told the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast; “I was adjusting to everything else, just trying to fit in — until I thought, Just be you.”

Jervis, who placed 5th in distance swimming for the British team at the Olympic games in Tokyo, Japan, told the BBC he was inspired by 17-year-old Blackpool FC forward Jake Daniels, the professional soccer player who made history as only the second person in the past 30 years to acknowledge their sexual orientation publicly in that sport in the United Kingdom.

The swimmer also told the BBC it was important to be seen as a role model as he readies to compete in the upcoming Commonwealth Games. Jervis has previously competed winning a 1500m freestyle silver and bronze at the 2014 and 2018 Games in Glasgow, Scotland and Australia’s Gold Coast respectively.

“It took me 24 years to be who I am,” he said and added, “You know, we’re just before the Commonwealth Games and there are going to be kids and adults watching who will know that I’m like them, and that I’m proud of who I am.”

The Olympian reflected on his decision to announce he was gay: “For so long, I hated who I was – and you see it all the time, people who are dying over this. They hate themselves so much that they’re ending their lives.

“So if I can just be that someone people can look at and say, ‘yeah, they’re like me,’ then that’s good.”

Jervis then said he revealed his sexuality to a close friend when he was 24: “At that point, I’d never said the words out loud to myself.”

“I said to her: ‘I think I’m gay.’ I couldn’t even say: ‘I’m gay.’ I was basically punching the words out.

“She was quite shocked but great, and it was exactly the reaction I wanted. I’ve had all good reactions, and the way I’ve described it is I’m not going to change as a person.

“Everyone’s journey is different, but I think I’ve always known.

“It was something in the back of my mind, bugging me. I thought I was bisexual and had girlfriends that I loved – but it came to about three years ago where I knew I had to deal with this.

“It wasn’t affecting my swimming, but me as a human being. It sounds quite drastic, but I wasn’t enjoying my life. Yeah, I was smiling, but there was something missing to make me properly happy.

“I’m still the Dan you’ve always known. You just know something else about me now.”

The Commonwealth Games open in Birmingham, UK on July 28.

Listen: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p0chqfhn

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Online Culture

FCC asks Apple & Google to remove TikTok app from their stores

Its pattern of surreptitious data practices that are documented show TikTok is non-compliant with app store policies and practises

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Graphic by Molly Butler for Media Matters

WASHINGTON – In a series of tweets Tuesday, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr disclosed a letter sent to both Apple and Google’s parent company Alphabet asking the two tech giants to remove TikTok from their app stores over his concerns that user data from the wildly popular social media platform is disclosed and used by bad actors in China.

In his letter dated June 24 to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, Carr noted that because of its pattern of surreptitious data practices documented in reports and other sources, TikTok is non-compliant with the two companies’ app store policies and practises.

“TikTok is not what it appears to be on the surface. It is not just an app for sharing funny videos or meme. That’s the sheep’s clothing,” he said in the letter. “At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data.”

Carr stated that if the companiest do not remove TikTok from their app stores, they should provide statements to him by July 8.

The statements should explain “the basis for your company’s conclusion that the surreptitious access of private and sensitive U.S. user data by persons located in Beijing, coupled with TikTok’s pattern of misleading representations and conduct, does not run afoul of any of your app store policies,” he said.

Carr was appointed by former President Trump in 2018 to a five-year term with the FCC.

In March of this year, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a nationwide investigation into TikTok for promoting its social media platform to children and young adults while its use is associated with physical and mental health harms to youth.

The investigation will look into the harms using TikTok can cause to young users and what TikTok knew about those harms. The investigation focuses, among other things, on the techniques utilized by TikTok to boost young user engagement, including strategies or efforts to increase the duration of time spent on the platform and frequency of engagement with the platform.

TikTok’s computer algorithms pushing video content to users can promote eating disorders and even self-harm and suicide to young viewers. Texas opened an investigation into TikTok’s alleged violations of children’s privacy and facilitation of human trafficking last month.

TikTok has said it focuses on age-appropriate experiences, noting that some features, such as direct messaging, are not available to younger users. The company says it has tools in place, such as screen-time management, to help young people and parents moderate how long children spend on the app and what they see, the Associated Press reported.

“We care deeply about building an experience that helps to protect and support the well-being of our community, and appreciate that the state attorneys general are focusing on the safety of younger users,” the company said. “We look forward to providing information on the many safety and privacy protections we have for teens.”

TikTok has also had a problematic relationship with the LGBTQ+ community. Recently The Washington Post confirmed that the ‘Libs of TikTok,’ an influential anti-LGBTQ account regularly targets LGBTQ individuals and their allies for harassment from its more than 640,000 Twitter followers while serving as a veritable wire service for Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media to push anti-LGBTQ smears.

Libs of TikTok regularly targets individual teachers and their workplaces – releasing their personal information that includes school and individual names as well as social media accounts, and leading its audience to harass the schools on social media.

A year ago, an investigation by Media Matters found that TikTok’s “For You” page recommendation algorithm circulated videos promoting hate and violence targeting the LGBTQ community during Pride Month, while the company celebrated the month with its #ForYourPride campaign. 

Numerous LGBTQ+ content creators have shared stories with the Blade about TikTok’s seemingly arbitrary algorithms that target otherwise benign content that is not listed outside of the platform’s polices and removed the content. In many cases restoring the posts after appeals or in the worst case scenarios banning the users.

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