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.
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.