Sunday, December 15, 2019

135 (2019-2020): Review: THE CRUCIBLE (seen December 13, 2019)

“The Real Witch Hunts”

It’s impossible, while watching Eric Tucker’s magnetically gripping revival of Arthur Miller’s 1953 modern classic The Crucible, for Bedlam (i/a/w the Nora), not to shudder at the play’s resonances with the current impeachment mess. The Crucible, of course, conflates the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692-1693 with the communist-hunting HUAC hearings of the McCarthy era.
However, while the play originally was intended as a slap in the face of the commies-in-every-woodpile turmoil of the day, The Crucible takes no sides in the current political debate, each side arguably being able to find support in it for its positions.
What it does do with volcanic force, though, is to encapsulate the ever-more heated struggle between truth and lies, while exploiting the theme of guilt by association. And, of course, inspired by the refusal of some HUAC witnesses –like Miller himself—to name names, it explores a noble act of self-sacrifice to prevent others from being harmed.   
As I once wrote regarding a different production (with different actors than those named here), The Crucible examines the mass hysteria stirred up in a Puritan community by the accusations of witchcraft leveled by 17-year-old Abigail Williams (Truett Felt, ferocious) and other girls as a way of avoiding punishment for having been seen at night dancing in the woods. They blame their behavior on the Devil. Allegations of witchcraft are leveled by Abigail at various Salem women, including Elizabeth Proctor (Susannah Millonzi, deeply moving), wife of the independent-minded farmer John Proctor (Ryan Quinn, tragically heroic), Abigail’s employer, whom she seduced and whose wife she’d like to replace.

The townspeople respond in a superstition-fueled frenzy that brings powerful officials, led by the obdurate Deputy Governor Danforth (Paul Lazar, ruthlessly demanding), to Salem to seek out the devil worshippers; torture and the threat of hanging are deployed to force the defendants to name names. Motivated by personal animosities, including greed, vengeance, and envy, neighbors turn on neighbors, and reason to unreason. Tragedy ensues when the morally compromised Proctor performs a sacrificial act that saves his “name,” leading his equally condemned (and pregnant) wife to say, “He has his goodness now.”

Certainly, the maelstrom of passions, fears, imaginings, panic, and superstition is as viscerally present in this unusual, stripped-down, 14-actor production (13 when I attended) as it was in Ivo van Hove’s controversial rendering on Broadway, which I admired, in 2016. The auditorium seats in the old Connelly Theater in Alphabet City have been removed so that some audience members, seated on the stage, view the performance while facing the spacious auditorium’s rear. Others, in the auditorium itself, surround the action in a semicircular row. 
Costumes have been reduced by Charlotte Palmer-Lane to neutral modern styles, lots of them dark and scruffy, while John McDermott’s scenery-less set consists of little more than sturdy, old, mismatched, wooden kitchen chairs and tables, as well as a bed. These are moved about rapidly in cleverly orchestrated shifts (chairs roll on casters), serving for multiple purposes (tables, or tables on tables, become platforms, for example), but with all units (like the “offstage” actors) remaining exposed throughout. With scene flowing instantly into scene it sometimes takes a moment or two to determine where we are.
The cast, annoyingly, is listed in the program (handed out after the show) as an unindividuated ensemble, no one being identified by their roles. This requires interested theatregoers to determine who’s who on their own. If I were an actor brave enough to risk hanging by Salem’s court, I’d protest. 
Various actors play more than one role. Given the relative paucity of visual hints, this can be momentarily confusing. Distinctive performances in particular roles are given by Caroline Grogan as Mary Warren, the one girl willing to call Abigail a liar; Shirine Babb as Tituba, the Barbadian slave; Randolph Curtis Rand as the self-important, narrowminded Rev. Parris; Rajesh Bose as Giles Corey, who bravely endures death by the piling on of stones (“More weight,” he demands); Shaun Taylor-Corbett, as the clerk, Cheever, crawling like a dog on all fours; director Eric Tucker as the conscience-stricken Rev. Hale; Alan Altschuler as the hardscrabble landowner Thomas Putnam; and John Terry, playing not only his own roles but stepping in excellently—book in hand—to play those of the ailing Arash Mokhtar. 
For all his John Doyle-like minimalism, and his creative use of the simple assortment of battered furniture, Tucker respects the text. He’s inspired his cast to express their characters’ words, emotions, and motives with remarkable conviction, building moments of anxiety with considerable overlapping of dialogue and near-operatic explosions of anger and fright. This occasionally means a plethora of shouting but it never seems forced, even when—as in the opening scene at Rev. Parris’s house—the actors seem to be affecting an exaggeratedly melodramatic manner. This combination of heightened theatrical style and profoundly invested emotionality grabs you tightly and never lets go. 
Given the deep connection the actors make with their characters and the situations, however, Tucker’s penchant for gimmickry can seem intrusively unnecessary. Does he really need those postmodern microphones (soon enough discarded)? Or a cowboy-style revolver and holster at the Marshal’s hip? Or actors lighting their own faces in the dark with flashlights? Or small metal lamps maneuvered by the actors for spotlight effects? Les Dickert’s piercing lighting does well enough sticking to conventional means without such nods to clichéd avant-gardism. 
Bedlam’s The Crucible follows in the wake of other “experimental” revivals of the play, from the Wooster Group’s version, where it forms one part of L.S.D. (. . . Just the High Points . . . ), to the previously mentioned Ivo van Hove revival. An offbeat version of a three-hour American classic at one of New York’s less accessible venues may not be high on many holiday season lists. Serious theatregoers, though, should consider gifting themselves a visit to East Fourth Street to see this one before it closes.

Connelly Theater
220 E. Fourth St., NYC
Through January 29