Review

Review: Weird and Wonderful, Witch at Writers is an Intellectual Halloween Treat

Ryan Hallahan and Audrey Francis. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

I really like Jen Silverman. Steppenwolf just premiered her strange buddy comedy The Roommate after a successful run at the Humana Festival. It was touching and surprising, with outstanding performances from Ora Jones and Sandra Marquez. Facility Theatre is currently running an excellent production of Phoebe in Winter, which the Reader called “a year’s worth of playgoing packed into 100 minutes”; I agree. As an actor it was my privilege to perform in Still during its Chicago premiere with Interrobang Theatre Project in 2016. That play, about a giant dead baby searching the world for his mother, won Silverman the Yale Drama Series award, and was selected from hundreds of applicants by none other than Marsha Norman. She is also the writer of short stories, an upcoming novel, a Netflix series, and curator of the Instagram account @this_panda_is_sad; part-self-promotion part-absurd-cartoon-showcase. A recent comment to Jen from the equally talented playwright Sarah Ruhl drove Georgette (my dear friend, colleague and fellow Silverman-enthusiast) and I into a frantic fangirl frenzy.

Which brings me to Witch: commissioned by and premiering at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. Expertly directed by Marti Lyons (she worked closely with Silverman on this one, and seems to know exactly how to pull off the playwright’s delicate tone), it is a play about a lot of things. It’s sometimes about being a woman in this world when everyone around you would prefer you disappear, but you have no place to go. It’s also about being a man in the same world when everyone expects you to be a certain way but you aren’t that way, so what are you to do? It’s about true love, and betrayal, and sexual transactions and wish fulfillment and the current state of politics and culture and religion. Which is really not unlike Phoebe in Winter, or Silverman’s excellent The Moors (I hope that play is staged in Chicago some time soon; we should all be lucky enough to see it).

In Witch the Devil is a character, but he doesn’t have horns and he doesn’t talk about lakes of fire or eternal damnation. But he does make mention of regret, and longing, and the secret desires we all have. The desires we would sell our souls for. He’s played with a deadly sense of humor and slick charm by Ryan Hallahan. It’s an excellent, controlled performance. And then there’s Audrey Francis as Elizabeth, who is technically the Witch of the title but is really a stand in for so much more; her opening monologue sets the tone for what follows—she is the fiery pulse of this piece, and she commands attention every moment she is on stage, even when she is simply observing other characters in dialogue. The opportunity to see her wordlessly convey multitudes while leaning against a doorframe should be incentive to make the trip up north. (The work by scenic designer Yu Shibagaki, all medieval stone walls, and lamplit, cavernous corners will satisfy a Halloween appetite, too. )

The more I encounter Jen Silverman’s work, the more I am convinced of the playwright’s subversive intelligence; she seems to be always operating on a mythic level of allegory, playing with the conventions of drama itself, twisting expectations until they break and become something altogether new. She writes in a space out of time, with anachronistic dialogue on constant shifting ground. Her characters are costumed and wear masks of one kind or another, just like the actors on the stage; they are performative and behave like overgrown children, confessing and sulking and calling each other’s bluffs and dropping little nuggets of folksy, universal wisdom.

Silverman demands bold gesture and microscopic precision from her actors; her writing makes hairpin turns, and rest assured, director Marti Lyons and this gifted cast deliver the goods. Every line feels like a little poem. Plot here is so secondary because Silverman is gifting us space to recognize ourselves and those who oppose us up on a stage, with the hope that maybe, just maybe, we can learn to navigate these relationships before something truly violent happens. All art is a mirror, but plays like Witch, plays that reflect our image back in a murky, somewhat unholy light are particularly important. You’ll see something different than I did, which is where the magic lies. I bet we’ll have both seen something broken and beautiful. I’ll bet it’s something we might have been afraid to face. But, lucky us: we have the help of a poet’s guiding hand.

Witch plays until December 16 at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. The runtime is 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $50-$70.

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