Theatre Review: ‘The Crucible’ at The Stratford Festival

Members of the company in The Crucible. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Many of us can recall reading Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in high school, spending a few weeks reading lines out loud and talking about its themes for the purpose of education. While reading as a young person was a memorable experience, there is something terrifying about being swept into a live version of this pertinent story based on the most notorious American example of mass hysteria in the gorgeous Avon Theatre at the Stratford Festival.

haunting and horrifying…

Inspired by actual events, the play opens with various Salem townsfolk convening at Reverend Parris’ house inquiring about his daughter, Betty, who has fallen suspiciously ill. Knowing Betty was seen with a group of young women dancing naked in the forest with Parris’ Barbadian slave Tituba, it doesn’t take long for rumors of witchcraft to swirl. As people take turns trying to diagnose Betty, accusations start flying. By the end of the first act, men and women of all ages and even spotless reputations are being arrested and tried for witchcraft. Amongst these accusations, the young and driven Abigail Williams tries desperately to reconnect with her former employer and one-time lover, the farmer John Proctor. 

Straford’s production tells the story phenomenally well, making it one of the most frustrating, uncomfortable and, at times, horrifying things you will sit through in a theater. Director Jonathan Goad has taken great care to avoid easy, predictable theatrics during Miller’s many speeches in favor of saving wild outbursts for only the show’s poignant moments.

The production design as a whole is stellar, backed by a simple, dynamic set by Michael Gianfrancesco and shrouded in utterly harrowing lighting designed by Bonnie Beecher. Complete with haunting and at times heart-stopping sound designed and composed by Debashis Sinha, “The Crucible’s” technical elements will stay with you long after the show concludes.

Every actor has a moment to standout throughout this staging of the Crucible, allowing the audience to morally question each character, wondering whether their accusations or the accusations against them are remotely credible. 

Leading the cast is Tim Campbell as the strong, increasingly frustrated and passionate Proctor. As one of the tallest actors in the show, he commands the room as he steps in wearing his tall boots and dirty leather trench coat. Without giving away how the story ends, his character arc is one of the most powerful and frustrating to watch.

Katelyn McCulloch is the notorious Williams, the ringleader of Salem’s young ladies at the center of the witchcraft accusations. What she says goes, and McCulloch makes that terrifying truth clear from the start. She’s manipulative and smart, and, no matter how unlikable, her powers of persuasion can’t be tamed.

This production also opened my eyes to two other characters who I think the audience resonates the most with as the story develops – the Proctors’ employee, Mary Warren (Mamie Zwettler) and Reverend Hale (Rylan Wilkie). They begin the story the same way – horrified at the possibility of witches in Salem and anxious to do their part to stop it. As Warren starts to realize what Williams is up to, with the help of John Proctor, she tries to stand up for herself in court, with Zwettler delivering a stunning performance as Warren is questioned and threatened.

Hale is committed to ridding the world of witches as well, and despite being one of the more level-headed people in power, doesn’t budge on his beliefs until Warren and Proctor arrive at the court. When Hale truly begins to realize the horror of what he’s assisted in accomplishing and is unable to stop it, it is a truly heart breaking moment for the audience.

Stratford’s “The Crucible” is haunting and horrifying, especially in a world where people put strong stake in things they believe to be true, no matter how outlandish, just because they heard them from a source they trust. It is a truly thought-provoking and unforgettable time at the theater well worth the drive to Stratford.

Running Time: Three hours including a 20-minute intermission.

“The Crucible” runs through October 25 at the Stratford Festival’s Avon Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Crucible’ at Kavinoky Theatre

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The cast of “The Crucible” at Kavinoky Theatre

“We are what we always were in Salem,” John Proctor cries out in Act II of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” “but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!” Proctor (Adriano Gatto), guilty of adultery, realizes that his act unwittingly empowered the single minded girl whose dalliances with unashamed sexuality and “dark spirits” have sparked witch trials — trials that now threaten to snatch up Proctor’s long-suffering, all-forgiving, and unflinchingly truthful wife Elizabeth (Aleks Malejs). Later in the scene Proctor returns to the thought: “We are what we always were — but naked now!”

. . . masterful performances will carry away all the audience’s doubts, quibbles, and objections about this admirable production.

Proctor is talking about the witch trials. Because Arthur Miller is the author, Proctor is also talking about 1950s American anti-communist hysteria, another “crucible” in our history, which would sweep up and imperil Miller and some of his closest friends around the time of the play’s composition (1953). And because we are the audience and our year is 2017, John Proctor is also talking about the American Kangaroo Court culture and its Tweeter in Chief, where to prosecute is to hold power, to accuse is to claim privilege, and there is only safety in the transference of blame.

“The Crucible” is about all of this — “lock her up,” and loyalty oaths, and so on — and, yet, it isn’t. Though at times electrically relevant, there is something deeper than the frissons of recognition that play across our skin when we hear lines like this. The play is almost an American ur-narrative, for in plumbing the Salem witch trials and 20th century anti-communist frenzy, Miller taps into the dynamics of fear, doubt and superstition always active, if latent, in our politics; and he drives to the wellspring of insecurity in American civil relations, which probably began when John Edwards preached to us that few are saved, most are damned, and your neighbor’s heart might hold more wickedness than your own. The play’s “relevance,” then, is never the point. “We are what we always were in Salem.” Director Robert Waterhouse recognizes this, and signals — with subtle costume changes, the appearance of an ahistorical flashlight — that the play is not tied to any time or times.

This production opens with projected images of black and white bodies engaged in forest rites, played over a string-and-percussion cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Here, Brian Millbrand’s projections and Geoffrey Tocin’s sound — at best illustrative of elements only alluded to in the text, at worst overassertive — accidentally highlight shortcomings of both the play and the production. While superficially related to the plot of “The Crucible,” “Sympathy for the Devil” treats the taboo, anti-social, destructive, and heedless sexuality that is ostensibly at the heart of John Proctor’s misdeed as well as Salem’s hysteria. (There is a Bacchae somewhere in this script.) Here the song signals what the play will not explore. The nature and dynamics of John Proctor’s relationship with his former servant Abigail Williams, and the reason Abigail and the other girls drink blood and dance naked in the woods, these thematic elements number among many — including racial othering, class and democracy, the subjection of women, Calvinism and the American character — that break the surface of the plot and dialogue but ultimately fall outside the narrow scope of Miller’s fiery focus. This is part of the reason for the play’s belabored ending, as John equivocates over declaring, signing, displaying, and “destroying” a confession: Miller comes to the end of his play and realizes he has not taken the time to understand his protagonist’s motivations.

An uneven ensemble accentuates these flaws: Some central cast members fail to dig down and discover nuance where the script gives little direction. Switching Peter Palmisano (Judge Hathorne) and David Lundy (Rev. Samuel Parris) might have yielded interesting results. Abigail Williams’ character is underdeveloped and Shelby Ehrenreich’s performance, though energetic, draws on a limited emotional palette; the same could be said of John Fredo’s Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth. That said, one of the most gripping scenes in the play comes when these two, caged, collide: Danforth feels himself losing control of the proceedings and, therefore of his political power; Williams fights to retain her precarious place at the center of the witch hunt, which is the only form of privilege her society will permit her. Fredo and Ehrenreich give outstanding performances here.

Highest honors go to the Proctors, though: Adriano Gatto (fresh off his endurance performance in Irish Classical’s “Design for Living”) powerfully embodies John, who in Miller’s script is something like a Jeffersonian yeoman farmer, a man of reason as well as fallen human passions and weaknesses, a skeptic who keeps Church and State both at arms length, and who treats people as individuals rather than members of collectives. In Gatto’s performance the yeoman hero becomes as complicated and compelling an American figure as Jefferson himself — towering, wounded, guilty, aware of his guilt, tragically resolute and tragically unresolved. Aleks Malejs likewise conveys every shade of Elizabeth Proctor’s complicated character. She becomes something like a tragic American demi-goddess — all-seeing, all-knowing, all-forgiving, but aware that these powers will be insufficient to save her husband or herself. Beside the Proctor’s woundedness and love, the trial will sometimes seem silly and incidental.

Though occasionally slow and imbalanced overall, at its emotional crescendos (which are not, usually, the play’s loudest parts), masterful performances will carry away all the audience’s doubts, quibbles, and objections about this admirable production.

Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes, 15 minute intermission.

“The Crucible” runs until November 26, 2017 and is presented at the Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘The Crucible’ at Kavinoky Theatre

“The Crucible” opens November 3 at The Kavinoky Theatre.

How do you captivate students (and enrich the learning experience) and still appeal to your general audience? It was a serious consideration for The Kavinoky Theatre this season. Both audiences are important: season subscribers and single ticket buyers are with you now, while today’s students are tomorrow’s patrons.  The Kav addressed this by going back to basics with a 21st century twist:  Arthur Miller’s classic American drama “The Crucible” will open at the Kav on Friday, November 3, and will include some dynamic multi-media elements created by video artist Brian Milbrand.

“We were looking to stage an American classic,” says the Kav’s managing director Loraine O’Donnell. “Education is part of our mission. ‘The Crucible’ is still widely taught, and is part of the Common Core. Bringing classes to the theatre helps teachers teach drama in another way. The teachers have a study guide to spark class discussion, and then seeing the production makes it come alive.” When classes visit the Kav on school time, the production is followed by a talk-back with the actors. “Kids are intuitive,” says O’Donnell. “They ask sophisticated questions, beyond things like ‘how do you learn your lines.’ Maybe that comes with being exposed to more theatre.”

“The video elements are woven into the production to help advance the story and establish time and place,” says O’Donnell. Students will connect with video, too, particularly visual learners who sometimes need more prompting to engage with reading-based studies.

The general audience is already familiar with the Kav’s creative use of video. Milbrand used stunning and powerful images in “Grounded,” the story of a fighter pilot on drone duty. Robert Waterhouse, director of “The Crucible,” saw the production and was inspired to integrate video into this production. Waterhouse also built a historical timeline against Miller’s account of the Salem witch trials to help draw the audience back to the 17th century.

O’Donnell says, “We’ve made our own world with the costume choices,  inspired by Mennonite, Amish, and maybe some Islamic influences.” Blurring the lines (look carefully at the videos: you may see some intentional, contemporary flashes there) suggests that the story isn’t all history: perhaps in some isolated places in this world, this story is still emerging.

The Crucible will open at The Kavinoky Theatre November 3 and run through November 26, 2017. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration Paid For By The Theatre Alliance of Buffalo