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Thu January 17, 2013
Three to See: A Witch Trial, a Love Song, and a Broken Family
When the curtains go up this weekend, where will you be? Jared Bowen hopes you’ll choose the front row at one of these local productions.
This production takes us into the desert, Palm Springs in the mid-1990s, and into the isolated life of a conservative family. The matriarch and patriarch are former film-industry cast-offs who have immersed themselves in California’s Republican Party. The wife also must care for her alcoholic sister, and the entire family is reeling from a horrible act committed by their son years ago that attracted national attention and turned the family into pariahs.
At Christmastime, their liberal and rebellious daughter who looks “like she's a refugee from a library in Kabul” informs her parents that she is writing a memoir about her brother’s crime and how it affected the family. But how will the family handle the re-opening of freshly healed wounds?
The play, which premiered on Broadway in 2011, is in the Arthur Miller and Edward Albee vein of theater — it picks apart the family at its center. But since it’s written by John Robin Baitz, the creator of the television series Brothers and Sisters, modernizes some of the familial elements that seem quaint or outdated in a play like “Death of a Salesman.” When I saw the play on Sunday, it was a little rocky. But I think that a project this poignant and wide in scope will tighten as the run goes on.
And now for something completely different — this production is short, sweet, and frothy. It’s almost like dessert. In 1980 Craig Lucas took a look at all of the music created by Stephen Sondheim (“Sweeney Todd,” “Westside Story” and “Into the Woods”) that never made it into shows. Songs that were cut from production, some early in the writing process and some in the days just before a show opened.
All the songs Lucas selected for the production are love songs to some degree, and some will be instantly recognizable to Sondheim fans — they were originally slated to be part of productions like "Anyone Can Whistle," "Follies," "Company," and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." The production is staged in four rooms and presents characters that speak no lines — they only communicate with the audience through song. But you still get a sense of their individual personalities based on the songs that they sing, where they’re living, and how they’re dressed— from the scruffy young man whose apartment is unkempt to the girl with a princess bedroom and a teddy bear.
This production is the first time that Sondheim has allowed gender-blind casting, leaving the audience with both same-sex and heterosexual couples serenading each other on stage. It’s an interesting element, and one that shakes up the traditional melodies. Watch the stage for Erica Spyres — she has an amazing voice, and in this production even plays the violin. She’s a local talent to keep your eye on.
In their mission statement, the small theater company Whistler in the Dark makes an impassioned argument for keeping theater simple — for removing the trappings of production and focusing on the way the actor performs in a given space. How does that change a production? Well, the set for Vinegar Tom is just a simple house frame, and costuming is also kept bare bones.
The play, which was written in 1976 by Caryl Churchill, focuses on the witch trials that took place in 17th century England. The work was written as part of a feminist collective and examines what happens when a galvanizing societal force allows you to blame witches — and women — for your daily problems.
Because the production is so stripped down the audience must focus on the actors, who are phenomenal. Watching Vinegar Tom, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen the talents on stage in other Boston productions before. The action on stage is also punctuated by simplistic music, and the singer, Veronica Barron, is magnificent.
BOSTON PUBLIC RADIO