'Witch': Theater Review

Courtesy of Jeff Lorch
Maura Tierney and Evan Jonigkeit in 'Witch'
A spell worth casting.
9/29/2019

Maura Tierney and Evan Jonigkeit head an outstanding cast in Jen Silverman's darkly humorous update from 1621 at the Geffen Playhouse.

Based on a Jacobean play from 1621, Jen Silverman's Witch is thematically as current as the morning headlines. Commissioned by Chicago's Writers Theater, this revamped tragicomedy enjoyed a successful world premiere last year before arriving in Los Angeles with director Marti Lyons and a new cast and creative department. In this stripped-down production staged in the intimate 138-seat Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, Silverman's clever dialogue elicits laughter that underpins darker themes. Headlining a strong cast is Maura Tierney as Elizabeth Sawyer, a real-life figure executed for witchcraft whose search for hope against the odds echoes our own unsure era. 

In her loose adaptation of The Witch of Edmonton, written by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford, Silverman reworks subplots and jettisons period dialogue for contemporary vernacular. At the core of the play is the relationship between Sawyer and Scratch (Evan Jonigkeit), the alluring devil who one strange day appears in her hovel. But before he does, he stops in on Frank Thorney (Ruy Iskandar), an ambitious peasant who has weaseled his way into the good graces of local landowner Sir Arthur Banks (Brian George), widower father to Cuddy (Will Von Vogt), who yearns for Frank even as he wishes him dead. 

Such wishes are where Scratch makes scratch. He offers Frank anything he desires in exchange for his soul. Complacent with his lot, Frank demurs until Scratch prompts him to consider the future. Doing so with an eye on Sir Arthur's fortune, Frank acquiesces. Cuddy, wishing only to dance the Morris dance (a real-life all-male tradition), sells his soul to see Frank snuffed out. Sir Arthur’s maid, Winnifred (Vella Lovell), is secretly married to Frank and is carrying his baby. When Scratch comes to her, she asks only to be buried by her husband's side. But when he comes to Sawyer, who having been scapegoated by the community and labeled a witch has more reason to sign than any, she remains a tempting holdout. 

It's here where Silverman cultivates her theme of a world without hope made hopeful by the renewal that might follow wholesale slaughter, a metaphor for revolution. "We are poised in the quintessential moment of asking ourselves if we can fix the system from within or if the only way forward is just to burn it all down," Silverman says in the program notes. It's an attitude usually adopted by a play's antagonist, not the protagonist, as she has done here. 

Scenes between Tierney and Jonigkeit take place downstage on scenic designer Dane Laffrey's dirt floor. Behind them is a close-up pair of eyes from a portrait of the period cast in eerie blue by lighting designer Keith Parham when the lights interstitially dim. Scratch comes to visit Sawyer "off the clock" to get to know her better. As irresistible force to Tierney's immovable object, Jonigkeit steals most of their scenes, not due to his partner's dramatic shortcomings but because Scratch is witty where Sawyer is smart, and witty is just more fun. While Silverman maintains a tuned ear for dialogue and a keen understanding of situational comedy, scenes often spin their wheels. In such instances, her solution is to put a button on it and cut to black.

A Golden Globe winner for her work on Showtime's The Affair, Tierney is a subtle performer only too happy to dim her wattage and blend seamlessly with the ensemble. Over the years she has honed her theater chops appearing off-Broadway in a 2006 production of Neil LaBute's Some Girl(s) and working twice with the Wooster Group in North Atlantic and a recent international tour of The Town Hall Affair. Here, her character is stirred from a dour existence by the company of the devil, her monotone gradually brightened by the prospect of change.

While director Lyons strikes the right note between the play's darker and comedic elements, her work with Tierney and Jonigkeit is effective despite limited chemistry between the two. Their burgeoning romance strains credibility in a manner similar to Winnifred's blind devotion to Frank, which is to say the play's emotional elements generally miss the mark. 

Although Simon Helberg (Big Bang Theory) was to play Cuddy but dropped out to pursue a movie offer, it's easy to see he's a natural fit for the role gleefully filled by Von Vogt, who brings hilarity and a dose of poignancy to his portrayal of a rightful heir overlooked by his father mainly because he's gay. 

Iskandar as Cuddy’s nemesis Frank, fits the mold of a future patriarch — ambitious, obtuse, self-serving and greedy. It's a one-dimensional role that Iskandar is skillful enough to fully flesh out. Even more limited is the role of Sir Arthur played by George, who, despite his long dreary soliloquy to his deceased wife's portrait, remains a lighthearted though dense stand-in for the patriarchy. As Frank's sassy put-upon paramour Winnifred, Lovell draws laughter with her muted outrage as a servant. But her soul in exchange for the pleasure of being buried beside Frank one day rings hollow after he denounces her to secure his future. 

Three years into the Trump era, it's easy to see where Silverman's sense of hopelessness comes from. Whether or not the 2020 election removes him from office, a gloomy future holding the promise of global warming, rising nationalism and slowing economies will persist. "Imagine a new world. Destroy everything. See what grows," suggests Sawyer. Kill the patient in order to save it. It's a powerful dose of medicine. And strong comedic performances buoyed by witty barbs serve as a spoonful of sugar to help it go down.

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles
Cast: Maura Tierney, Brian George, Ruy Iskandar, Evan Jonigkeit, Vella Lovell, Will Von Vogt
Director: Marti Lyons
Playwright: Jen Silverman
Set designer: Dane Laffrey
Costume designer: Danae McQueen
Lighting designer: Keith Parham
Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers
Choreographer: Jessica Lee Keller
Fight director Steve Rankin
Presented by The Geffen Playhouse