Some Call Me Witch
The Witch of Edmonton, now playing as part of the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival at Mark’s Garage, is a highly accessible play from the 17th century with disturbingly contemporary resonances. Backed by a large cast of splendid performers and a fine interpretation by director Taurie Kinoshita, this loosely bound, committee-written story of a witch, a bigamist, and a coterie of clowns is fascinating. The trio of writers – William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, and John Ford (and possibly others) – were contemporaries of Shakespeare, which I imagine was a little like being a pro golfer during the Tiger Woods era. No wonder they had to team up.
The playwrights were inspired by an actual trial of a woman accused of witchcraft and subsequently executed in 1621. The title page of a First Edition of the play advertises it as: “A known true story. Composed into a tragicomedy.” It is considered interesting from a contemporary point of view because of a clear message that a witch may become so because of the beliefs of others, although this message is undermined somewhat in my view by a very literal depiction of the devil bewitching the protagonist after the play starts. If the goal of the writers, as some scholars say, was to disabuse folks of their superstitious beliefs, then they stumbled by becoming so wrapped up in weaving the antics of a demon spirit through all of the play’s action. On the other hand, if their goal was simply to tell this “true” tale on the stage, then they succeeded nicely. At any rate, it is what it is, so our goal now is to see what enlightenment we can draw from this 400-year old story.
Despised for various reasons having to do with past slights, a wretched Elizabeth “Mother” Sawyer (Stacy Ray) is scorned as a witch by the townsfolk. She strikes a deal for revenge with the devil (Nicolas Logue), who presents himself to her as a black dog named Tom. Meanwhile, hapless Frank Thorny (Tristan Williams) marries Winnifred (Ashley Shankles) because she is pregnant – not with his child as it turns out – and then also bigamously marries Susan Carter (Christine Lamborn) in order to save his family’s estate. At the same time, goofy and lovelorn Cuddy Banks (Brandon DiPaola) also encounters the devil dog, but proves to be such a “silly soul” that the devil can do him no harm. If this sounds like the plot for a Grimm meets Revenge meets Wife Swap original series on cable, then it just goes to show how easy it is for us in this era to understand a Jacobean story that intertwines vengeance, adultery, witlessness, and the supernatural into a spellbinding tale.
“Some call me witch, and being ignorant of myself, they go about to teach me how to be one,” explains Elizabeth Sawyer as she introduces herself to us. Yes, in this play from a time when people were pretty serious about witches, the main character says that she is a witch because other people think she is a witch. A judge (Nick Myers) sends away her tormenters with the words “Go, go: pray, vex her not; she is a subject, and you must not be judges of the law to strike her as you please.” At the center of this play is a parable about the destructive power of the mob to the individual human spirit and a lesson on the rule of law in protecting all citizens. In this Jacobean drama, a scorned woman takes us into her confidence so that when she implores, “Would some power, good or bad, instruct me which way I might be revenged,” we are somehow on her side. Unfortunately, the devil answers her.
Stacy Ray provides a masterful performance as Elizabeth Sawyer, the Witch of Edmonton. Nicolas Logue as Tom, the devil-dog, is at once charming and menacing as he switches seamlessly between man’s best friend, who loves tickles more than anything, and a demon who joyfully drives a man to murder, or a woman into insanity, with his touch. I imagine every director of this play has to figure out how to present a demon-dog who can both talk and bark, cajole and sooth, sneer and whimper, and be visible to some and invisible to others. Here, the director is well served not only by Logue’s creative canine contortions, but also by costumer Iris Kim, who fits out the dog nicely but not preposterously, and Lighting Designer Cora Yamagata, who helps by plunging the entire theatre into a red hellscape whenever the devil-dog is at his best (his worst?).
Speaking of costumes, it should be said that they were exceptional. The stage is bare, lighting is basic, and sound is subdued, so Ms. Kim’s intricate and beautiful period costumes provide most of the color and mood for the story.
With Elizabeth Sawyer and Tom as a strong core, the story of Frank Thorney and his two wives unfolds. This sordid affair, worthy of Desperate Housewives, creates disarray in multiple families. The men are largely to blame for the mess, as usual, with the women being cast unwittingly into their various roles as adulterers and bigamists. Strong actors fill out all the characters, with special kudos going to Christine Lamborn for her portrayal of Susan, wife number two. Susan’s role is a complicated dance between strength and naivety, and Lamborn accomplishes this believably. Her understanding of her own responsibility for what happens to her is difficult for a modern audience, but again Ms. Lamborn manages to convince us that it is real. When she has occasion to say, “Thou art my husband, Death, and I embrace thee with all the love I have,” we are truly chilled to the bone.
I also enjoyed Andrew Lum’s unusual performance as Sir Arthur Clarington, Frank Thorney’s master and the true father of Winnifred’s child, who he interpreted as a robotic sociopath. Aiko Chinen’s turn as Anne Ratcliffe, an especially unlucky victim of the witch’s revenge, was sobering, erasing all naiveté one might have had about the evil power of the devil-dog.
Tristan Williams portrays Frank Thorney as a man with incurable learned helplessness as he is thrown one curve after another. In the Director’s Note, Kinoshita explains that her aim was to depict Thorney and Sawyer as parallel victims of fate and the customs of their time. She clearly depicts instances in which Thorney’s agency is hijacked by the demon-dog. But, as a result, it can sometimes be hard to understand what motivates Frank or to discern any changes in him as his plight grows more treacherous. There is room for Mr. Williams to impact us more forcefully in several places, even within the constraints of his disastrous situations. On the other hand, maybe it is a reflection of our time that it was easier for me to understand the “helpless old woman” than the “helpless young man.”
Then there are the clowns. A bunch of hayseeds (Bailey Campbell, Gabriel Ramirez and Austin Sunderman), with Cuddy at their helm, roam at intervals through the plot. They were played precisely on the edge of nonsense, just far enough on this side of goofiness to stay their dismissal as total clods. Brandon DiPaola showed us a highly versatile Cuddy Banks who was equally comfortable dancing with his friends and with the devil. His understated clowning, all the funnier because of its innocence, kept him nicely attuned with the other story lines. It would have been easy to kick this character up into prima donna territory, which would have been distracting. In addition to providing comic relief, Cuddy and his pals show us that innocence is possible in an otherwise corrupt world. In fact, in the end Cuddy proves to be the only incorruptible main character with a decent life ahead of him, and it is probably because he is so dumb.
Kudos also to Dance Choreographer, Domina Hoffman, for the dance scene involving Cuddy’s gang at the center of the play. It teemed with life and metaphorical significance.
There are 21 actors in this play, so giving them all shout outs is impossible. But, it is worth saying that the atmosphere of the show, which they create together, is truly outstanding. The play opens with a community walkabout in which we get a glimpse into the nature of every character as they briefly encounter each other. The subject matter can be depressing, and yet these actors brought smiles to the audience in many unexpected places. They elicited gasps and squirms (in the right places). They had people laughing (in the right places). These actors held audience members’ attention from the first line to the last. They paid attention to each other. They moved the show along at an exciting pace and with notable energy. It was very clear that this troupe loved what they were doing, that they were good at it, and that they gave each other energy, focus, and stamina. They were also adept at directing their asides to the audience, thereby drawing us into the tragicomedy, too. It was a great pleasure to see this story machine running so hot.
So, what is this play about? To me, The Witch of Edmonton is an exploration of men’s and women’s souls, particularly the parts involving revenge and guilt. Everyone, it seems, has something to say about the soul:
At the outset, Elizabeth Sawyer sells her soul to the devil for revenge. She does so because she has been wronged her whole life. Beaten and broken, she seeks to destroy everything she can. As she explains to Sir Arthur: “If every poor old woman be trod on thus by slaves, reviled, kicked, beaten, as I am daily, she to be revenged had need turn witch.” To which he replies: “And you to be revenged have sold your soul to th’ devil.” In the end, even the devil doesn’t want her soul anymore.
Frank Thorny, already guilty about the situation he has placed himself in by marrying two women, becomes vulnerable to the touch of the same demon and commits a heinous crime. He is soon visited by the ghost of his victim who, he explains, did “Turn my soul wild by a face in which were drawn a thousand ghosts leapt newly from their graves…”
Cuddy, after learning about all the forms a devil can take on, including that of a flea, observes: “It seems you devils have poor thin souls, that you can bestow yourselves in such small bodies.” The devil reacts to Cuddy’s slight by saying “Nor will I serve for such a silly soul: I am for greatness now, corrupted greatness… I scorn to prey on such an atom soul.”
Finally, Winnifred says to her condemned husband at the end of the play, “Might our souls together climb to the height of their eternity, and there enjoy what earth denied us, happiness!” Frank, reconciling that his life is ending too soon, and yet justly, muses that “All life is but a wandering to find home; When we’re gone, we’re there. Happy were man, could here his voyage end; he should not, then, answer how well or ill he steered his soul by Heaven’s or by Hell’s compass.”
The condition and nature of the soul – its purity, corruptibility, worthiness, and ultimate fate – is a continual concern throughout the play. Many critics of The Witch of Edmonton see three stories that are barely connected. But, I see them as tightly connected through the issue of the soul. After all, the demon-dog cares only about people’s souls, and he navigates the parallel streams of this tale by dancing among a landscape of souls. In one story, the soul of interest is parched and destroyed from the beginning, in another we see a soul disintegrate via a series of bad circumstances and worse decisions, and in the third we see the devil inflict only a glancing blow on a pure soul. It’s ironic that the playwrights, perched on the threshold of the Enlightenment and glimpsing the possibility of a post-superstitious worldview, would primarily concern themselves with variations on how the devil can touch the soul. Yet, their stories are easily understood today and mirrored in our headlines, even if the devil is thought of more metaphorically now.
Corruption and deception are everywhere. Violence and cruelty warp souls and twist lives. Alienation and immorality imbue all levels of society. The rule of law is in question and the crowd chants, “Burn the witch, the witch, the witch!” like they are headed to a modern political convention. Sounding familiar? Having played his part in the whole sordid affair, the devil-dog exits to make more mischief, perhaps even to this day. Make sure to take in HSF’s energetic, accessible and successful production of The Witch of Edmonton, and judge for yourself how far we have come in 400 years.
Scott Robertson is a guest staff reviewer for Hitting The Stage.