I think one of the easiest traps to fall into when describing something is amazing is to gloss over the details. Stating that something is or was incredible, but stopping short of explaining why it is extraordinary is inherently a hollow claim. And it’s, unfortunately, a sinkhole that Writers Theatre fell into with their most recent production, Witch. The impeccable theatrical elements characteristic of Writers’ shows--excellent costume design, strong acting, and pristine stage direction--make for a very aesthetically pleasing play. Beneath this pristine facade, though, is a mesh of elements that never quite come together. While the production’s polish and entertainment factor can be high at times, Witch is unfortunately less than the sum of its parts.
Witch is an adaptation of a 17th century English Jacobin play, The Witch of Edmonton. The production plays out across two distinct plot lines: Elizabeth, a social pariah labeled a “witch,” plots revenge against the town who shunned her, while, at the court of Sir Arthur Banks, low born upstarts and high born disappointments compete for the contested spot of heir to the estate. The two threads are tied together with their dealings with a visiting devil, Scratch (a cute nod to the original, where the devil is a literal dog.) Scratch offers each character with something to prove a dastardly wish in exchange for their soul, an offer that all but Elizabeth agree to. From this point onward, we see the devil’s dealings play out in the battle for heirship, while Scratch becomes fascinated and infatuated with Elizabeth’s refusal of his offer.
While the parallel stories are captivating at times, the depth of themes and inconsistent adaptation of the source material distract. Witch takes on the daunting task of delving into a variety of heavy topics including sexual identity, paternal relationships, social shaming, gender politics, love and hate, hope, change, true passions, vanity and nihilism. As the lengthy list may suggest, there are too many ideas to develop any in a meaningful way; a theme is introduced in a monologue and is just as easily put down, never to be picked up again. When Sir Arthur’s son Cuddy ponders his interesting love/hate relationship with another character, for instance, a potentially profound moment about reconciling tumultuous relationships is forsaken in favor of a lengthy fight scene.
Not every play needs to have such deep analysis to be enjoyable, of course, especially a production that touts itself as being partially a comedy. Yet the play’s conclusion--which asks the audience to answer deeply abstract questions about the nature of hope--seems to lean toward greater meaning and implies deeper discussion. This reflection would resonate more if the precedent of thematic expansion was kept earlier in the show.
Aside from creating a fairy tale aesthetic, there were no anchor points in the story which require the dual plot lines to remain fixed in ancient England, raising the question of how the play benefits from being an adaptation. Nevertheless, the script insists on retaining its setting while making numerous modern day references. Sometimes these are played for cheeky, slapstick comedy (“keepin it on the DL”) and other times for dramatic effect (“he sees me through to my bones like an x-ray”), but they ultimately serve to confuse more so than enhance. For example, the first anachronistic reference from the devil is called out by Elizabeth and is played up for laughs, but every other out-of-place reference slides by the characters without mention.
Despite the deficiencies, however, there are moments in the show which remain entertaining and impactful. The final few interactions between Scratch and Elizabeth are the most engaging portions of the show due to stellar performances from Audrey Francis and Ryan Hallahan. Additionally, the show comes with the signature production value of Writer’s Theatre; the set design (Yu Shibagaki) and stage direction (Marti Lyons) is some of the best in the greater area. If you take certain elements of the show at face value you will find enjoyment in Witch, however the impactful whole is lost upon combination.
Somewhat Recommended ★★✩✩
Review by Ryan Moore
Witch continues at Writers Theatre through December 16. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.