Review: ‘Vinegar Tom’ at Shotgun Players (*****)

by Charles Kruger

Alice (Megan Trout) and Joan (Celia Maurice) are 17th-Century women accused of witchcraft in Shotgun Player’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s “Vinegar Tom.” Photo Credit: Ben Krantz.
Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Ariel Craft’s brilliant direction of Caryl Churchill’s “Vinegar Tom” absolutely explodes with righteous rage, which makes it all the more surprising that it remains delightfully entertaining throughout.

Jack (Dav Hassan) and his wife Margery (Jennifer McGeorge) seem sympathetic enough at the outset. Poor and ignorant, they are frustrated by poverty and bad luck. But when they decide that their circumstances must be the result of witchcraft, and accuse an elderly neighbor and her eccentric daughter (and even their neighbors’ cat, Vinegar Tom), a story of economic hardship takes on the ligaments of something much more horrifying: the systematic scapegoating of women for all misfortune, even to the extent of murdering the innocent.

As the elderly Joan, Celia Maurice plays a woman so frightened and cowed at being accused, that she begins to doubt if she isn’t, perhaps, as evil as they say, perhaps unconsciously. Her daughter, Alice, is less sanguine about the accusations and knows she is innocent. Still, she asserts:  “I’m not a witch. But I wish I was. If I could live I’d be a witch now after what they’ve done. If I only did have magic, I’d make them feel it.”

Alice could be speaking for playwright Churchill, who claims no supernatural powers but the magic of art, and she is very determined indeed, to “make us feel it!” For Churchill, the situation of women in 1970 is as viscerally horrifying as that of the accused witches in the 17th century, and, as is her wont, she not only rubs our faces in that horror and that complicity but makes sure we are damned well entertained in the process. Because of  her strong political consciousness, and fondness for musical interludes and alienation effects, Churchill has often been characterized as a “Brechtian” playwright — but she goes beyond Brecht, and no doubt in the future, playwrights of this type will be as often referred to as “Churchillian” as “Brechtian.” One must hope so, in any case.

Ariel Craft has done a fine job directing this mayhem, which the actors tear through at high intensity at every moment so that we are scarcely able to catch our breath. The performers are outstanding, especially Megan Trout. Always an intensely feral actress with an almost frightening physical intensity, Trout is at her considerable best here.

Perry Fenton, Ensemble; Sam Jackson, Ellen; Lyndsee Bell, Ensemble. Photo Credit: Ben Krantz.

The 17th-century action of the play is commented upon by a chorus of contemporary singers of punkish intensity, and they are quite thrilling: Lyndsee Bell, Melanie Dupuy, Amanda Farbstein, Perry Fenton, and Sharon Shao. (It is not quite clear from the program who sings and who doesn’t: I hope I will be forgiven any errors. Singing or not, every cast member excels.)

This past couple of months, the Bay area has enjoyed a fabulous trifecta of Churchill revivals: “Top Girls” at A.C.T., “Cloud 9” at Custom Made Theatre, and now “Vinegar Tom” for dessert at Shotgun Players. Highly recommended!

“Vinegar Tom” continues its extended run at the Ashby Stage through January 18, 2020. For further information, click here.


Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“Vinegar Tom” by Caryl Churchill. Produced by Shotgun Players. Director: Ariel Craft. Set Designer: Nina Ball. Orchestrator: Bryan Eng. Choreographer: Natalie Greene. Costume Designer: Brooke Jennings. Props Designer: Devon Labelle. Composer: Diana Lawrence. Fight Director: Dave Maier. Lighting Designer: Ray Oppenheimer. 

Cast:

Ensemble: Lindsee Bell. Goody: Melanie DuPuy. Susan: Amanda Farbstein. Ensemble: Perry Fenton. Jack: Dov Hassan. Ellen: Sam Jackson. Joan: Celia Maurice. Margery: Jennifer McGeorge. Packer: Sarah Mitchell. Betty: Sharon Shao. Megan Trout:

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