“Where do we go from here? Can we imagine a better world? Or is it time to burn it all down and start over?” That’s part of the opening speech by Elizabeth Sawyer (Kristin Collins), known as a witch in her English village.
Playwright Jen Silverman reimagines the 1621 play, The Witch of Edmonton, with a modern gloss but full commitment to the role of witches—and the devil—in Jacobean society. Her 2018 dark comedy, Witch, is now being staged by the Artistic Home, directed by Devon Carson.
Like the centuries-old play, Witch focuses on Sawyer, described as an older woman (meaning she was probably in her 40s), who is known as a witch in her village of Edmonton, a parish near London. She’s blamed by everyone for failed crops and sick cows, for human disease and other misfortunes. One day the devil comes to town, in the person of a charming young salesman named Scratch (Julian Hester). His goal is to buy as many souls as he can—in return for promising to fulfill a dark or evil wish for each seller. In particular he wants to buy Elizabeth’s soul and he figures it should be an easy purchase. She’s a witch and an outcast, after all—right?
Elizabeth confounds him by saying no, her soul isn’t for sale. She at least wants much better terms. The terms you would offer a man, she says to Scratch. What would you offer me if I was a man?
In many ways, Silverman sets this 17th century story firmly in its Jacobean era. At a dinner at the grand home of Sir Arthur Banks (Todd Wojcik), diners eat with their hands. One character is fond of Morris dancing, that English folk dance where performers wear bells on their shins and wave white handkerchiefs for percussion. Actors in one scene pass a lighted candle to the actors for the next scene. A rich father decides he will sign over his name and lands to a poor young man (Frank Thorney, played by Ernest Henton), because—actually because his own son (Cuddy Banks, played by Declan Collins) spends his time Morris dancing instead of farming. Winnifred, a young woman working as a maid in the Banks home (Ariana Lopez), passes unseen among the male diners (but that’s hardly just a Jacobean problem).
The playwright cleverly works in language and concepts of the modern capitalist era, such as Scratch’s note of his customer satisfaction rating and his recent promotion. (His training manual advises that he think of himself as a “merchant of hope.”) It turns out Scratch is not The Devil, but a devil, assigned to develop a new souls market in Edmonton. He reassures Elizabeth about the value of his services. “If you want to get detailed, my year-end numbers are better (across the board) than my senior colleagues, and my customer satisfaction is generally a good seven to ten points higher.” After he makes a few offers involving disease, insects and personal relationships, Elizabeth says, “Those are a bit juvenile…. What about wholesale slaughter?”
When Scratch realizes Elizabeth is serious, their relationship begins; he becomes a regular visitor and they have long chats. That’s the heart of this play, which asks us to seriously consider whether we have reverted to an earlier era of fear and ignorance, when women thought to be witches might be burned in the village square. Oh, you say, not that far? No witch burning. Perhaps just the end of democracy.
In her director’s message, Carson comments on how the world has changed since this play premiered. “I don’t think many people today would even bat an eye if the devil showed up on their doorstep or sat next to them in a bar. If we’ve learned anything in the last five years, it’s that soulless individuals do pretty well for themselves.” That’s why the play begins and ends like this: “The single question we should ask ourselves—Do I have hope that things can get better?”
Silverman’s play structure features an aria, or monologue, for each actor, in which the actor spills out “deeply buried things—a churning engine of truth.” Near the end, Winnifred, who has been a maid in the castle, in a wistful aria, tells Scratch what she would like for selling him her soul. The arias are each a lovely insight into the character and Carson stages each to give the actor a literal moment in the spotlight. Another highlight is the choreography (by David Blixt) of the fight between Cuddy and Frank. It’s remarkably realistic.
Scenic design is by Kevin Hagan with lighting by Ellie Fey and original music and sound by Petter Wahlbäck. Costumes are by Rachel Lambert. Erin Smith is stage manager.
Witch by the Artistic Home continues at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave., through December 3. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $20-$35 for performances Thursday-Sunday.
For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.
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