Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Witches Among Us

Vinegar Tom

Perry Fenton, Sam Jackson, Lyndsee Bell
By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Ariel Craft

Shotgun Players, Berkeley
Until January 19, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

It is not a new thing that strong women are feared, mistrusted, blamed, and punished for owning their anger, passion, sexuality, or independence..for being too different, too poor, too anything that denied or baffled the patriarchal world order.

For four centuries, such women were demonized as witches, hunted, tortured, and extirpated according to rules established by those in power and documented in such go-to reference books as the 15th century The Malleus Maleficarum (the Hammer of Witches).

With the term “witch hunt” permeating the news these days, Shotgun Players has grabbed the devil by the horns in staging “Vinegar Tom,” Caryl Churchill’s evisceration of the belief that strong women are evil beings that must be punished.

Sam Jackson and Sharon Shao
Set in rural England in the 1600s when witch hunts were legal and dangerous, “Vinegar Tom” follows the lives of simple peasant women (and one man) trying to get by in a world where all depends on the health of livestock and unquestioned obedience to intractable, obscure laws. Irascible and misunderstood Joan (Celia Maurice) is blamed by neighbors for sick and dying cows, impotence, stillbirths, and other problems; her “nasty cat” Vinegar Tom is often seen near the dairy or other places where one can only conclude that proximity = cause of problem.  “Find something to burn / let it all go up in smoke / burn your troubles away.” Joan is deemed a witch and thus ostracized, demonized and painfully "examined" by renowned witchhunter Packer (Sarah Mitchell) and his assistant Goody (Melanie DuPuy) who finds it "an honor to work with such a great professional."

With the back and forth pace of a boxing match, “Vinegar Tom” doesn’t have a plot so much as it stirs commotion and upset. Caught up in larger and unseen societal machinations, the characters collide with each other in fear and desperation.

Celia Maurice as the demonized Joan
Director Ariel Craft brilliantly orchestrates the creative energy of the Shotgun actors to capture the conflicting but synchronous feelings of horror and delight of the play. Daniel Alley and musicians provide lilting interludes that help distance us from the primitive but procedured persecution. The cabaret-like chorus struts in sensuous costumes designed by Brooke Jennings as they sing witty commentary with an in-your-face audacity no peasant woman would dare assume. Churchill stirs the cauldron of our sense and reason, and how strangely exciting it feels to be both repulsed and delighted.

The absurdity of the “scientific” practice of witch hunting is brilliantly lanced in the vaudeville-Edwardian music hall scene with Sam Jackson as Kramer and Celia Maurice as Sprenger, the two authors of the Malleus Maleficarum.  Jackson and Maurice wield mean top hats and canes as they engage in witty banter in sprightly counterpoint to the treacherous tome.

Vinegar Tom” emerged at the beginning of the women’s movement in the 1970s, when the book Our Bodies Ourselves opened the eyes of so many women who never before questioned their place in society. Such women would have been witches for sure. Although we can look back at the absurdity of 15th century practices, we should not sit back and assume that all is well if “powers that be” have their way.

Where have all the witches gone?
Who are the witches now?
Here we are.
- “Lament for the Witches”

"Vinegar Tom" by Caryl Churchill, directed by Ariel Craft. Shotgun Players, Ashby Stage, Berkeley, through January 19, 2020. Info:

Photography by Ben Krantz

The Cast
Lyndsee Bell, Ensemble, Doctor
Melanie DuPuy, Goody
Amanda Farbstein, Susan
Perry Fenton, Ensemble, Bellringer
Dov Hassan, Jack
Sam Jackson, Ellen, Kramer
Celia Maurice, Joan, Sprenger
Jennifer McGeorge, Margery
Sarah Mitchell, Packer
Sharon Shao, Betty
Megan Trout, Alice

The Crew
Daniel Alley, Music Director
Nina Ball, Set Design*
Dani Chapparro, M.A.D. Sound Fellow/Sound Sound Board Op
Ashley Corso, Wardrobe Supervisor
Ariel Craft, Director
Evan Favela, M.A.D. Props Fellow
Natalie Greene, Choreographer
Taylor Gonzalez, Sound Engineer
Brooke Jennings, Costume Designer
Liz Johnson, Production Assistant
Heather Kelly-Laws, Stage Manager
Amar Khalsa, Clarinet Sub
Devon LaBelle, Props Designer
Dave Maier, Fight Director
Caitlin McFann, Sound Sound Board Op
Ray Oppenheimer, Lighting Designer
Leigh Rondon-Davis, Assistant Director
Caitlin Steinmann, Master Electrician
Matt Stines, Sound Designer
Derek Sup, Piano/Associate Conductor

*Member of United Scenic Artists Local 829

The Band
Daniel Alley, Music Director, Piano/Conductor
Dup Crosson, Drums
Jorge Hernandez-Lopez, Alto Sax/Flute
Morgan Brittni Sonnenfeld, Clarinet

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