At some point recently, the theater, at least in Los Angeles, has changed from a medium of thematic exploration and development to one of undisguised political posturing and heavy-handed morality. The latest victim of this sophomoric writing style is Witch, written by Jen Silverman and playing now at the Geffen Playhouse.
The underdeveloped script is boosted by solid performances, and hefty production value, but is ultimately weighed down by the overwhelming insistence that in order to make a point, it must overtly state that point, hammer it home with more and more obvious allusions to that point, and then throw in an interpretive dance, which is meant, I suppose, to mask the narrative weakness with a physical one, but is as confounding as the through-line of the script itself.
There are two side-by-side stories happening here. The first, deals with the Devil (Evan Jonigkeit) going around making deals for people’s souls in a village sometime in the past, but also not in the past- the language is modern colloquial, but they’re all dressed like they’re in some Crucible/Shakespeare mash-up. The devil makes two contradictory deals, one with Cuddy Banks (Will Von Vogt), the rightful heir to Sir Arthur Banks’ (Brian George) fortune, and another to Frank Thorny (Ruy Iskandar) a young man that Sir Arthur has taken under his wing. Frank and Cuddy vie to be sir Arthur’s heir, and we’re given the task, as the audience, to invest empathy to these characters even though we are not given the slightest provocation to do so. To make matters worse, the character development is akin to a weak, albeit progressive, Disney film. Cuddy is gay, and therefore a disappointment to his father. Frank is big and strong and therefore a better choice. That’s it. Oh, and there’s also Winnifred (Vella Lovell) Sir Arthur’s maid, who is pregnant with Frank’s child and therefore used as a pawn between Frank and Cuddy to prove that women have no power and must only be utilized as a means to an end to satisfy male dominance. And in her baffling denouement, Winnifred doubles down on this. So both Frank and Cuddy have sold their souls to the devil in exchange for the death of the other. A contradiction that is never explained, and really it doesn’t matter because the stakes are so absent, even if we pretend they’re there, we still can’t locate them.
The second story is about Elizabeth (Maura Tierney), a village recluse that everyone thinks is a witch. The devil appears to her one day and offers to buy her soul in exchange for anything she wants. She refuses. This intrigues the devil, and he stays with her for an extended period and consequently falls in love with her. He then begins to question his entire existence as an agent of evil or something along those lines. It’s unclear why he falls in love with her. It’s unclear why she would refuse him. It’s just unclear. All of it. Some scenes between Ms. Tierney and Mr. Jonigkeit prove to be the most interesting, for the sole reason that these two actors are talented enough to rise above the material. Evan Jonigkeit is by far the most successful. His performance, while unmotivated in the script is fueled by great energy and charisma that boosts the production quite a bit. Maura Tierney is a great actress, but most of the time here she is just not given anything interesting to do and she looks a bit bored. Her character arc doesn’t exist, and it’s a real shame.
The production ultimately devolves into a series of cliched characters, not breaking out of their cliches, not utilizing any depth or imagination, just fizzling out into an obvious commentary that requires nothing from the audience except complicity.
But it’s got some pizazz, for those looking. The sets, designed by Dane Laffrey are solid. Director Marti Lyons keeps the pacing brisk enough that it only starts to lag during the longer monologues. And author Jen Silverman has a writing style that keeps the humor present for most of it, which is a saving grace from the underdeveloped puerile statement the script seems to be building toward. Once again, the theater is proving itself to be less and less relevant, and the clinging to old tropes and devices- the blackouts between scenes, the shoddy fight choreography, the melodramatic plot twist, the over-the-top acting from a few of the actors- makes it all feel like a dated, irrelevant, and shallow affair that begs, like on its knees, eyes squeezed shut kind of begging, the question- why this play? Why now?
Written by Jen Silverman
by The Witch of Edmonton by Rowley, Dekker and Ford
Directed by Marti Lyons
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024
Tickets currently priced at $30.00 – $120.00. Available in person at the Geffen
Playhouse box office, by phone at 310.208.5454 or online atwww.geffenplayhouse.org. Fees may apply.