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The Crucible: a classical text with contemporary ramifications - Drew Rowsome - MyGayToronto

The Crucible: a classical text with contemporary ramifications
24 January 2018

by Drew Rowsome
- Photos by Scott Gorman

The tragedy and horror of the Salem witch hunts continues to echo through the zeitgeist despite, or perhaps because of, ever-changing historical framing. Arthur Miller debuted The Crucible in 1953 and it was written as a specific metaphor for the tragedy and horror of McCarthyism. Since then it has become a canonical theatre text as it is versatile, and can be a treatise on religious fervour, mob mentality, the class system, capitalistic greed, sex hysteria, misogyny, racism, etc, etc, all the way to the current cri de couer of "fake news." A witch hunt can evoke and mean many things.

The Hart House production of The Crucible attempts to tackle as many of the themes as possible, all while presenting a classically authentic production that is focussed on the text. It is ambitious and succeeds very well at the latter while being a noble failure on the former. Questions of the danger of not separating church and state, and the greed of those in power, surface powerfully but sink into the next issue as it surfaces, makes a fleeting statement, and sinks back into the verbiage.

The Crucible is full of exposition and the debate of ideas and idealism. The line "No man knows when a harlot's claim will end his life" earns a laugh and a gasp, and has an contemporary relevance that is not supported by or relevant to the play. Because of the declamatory nature of the text - Miller claimed that, in an attempt at historical accuracy, he lifted the rhythms and speech patterns from the King James Bible, a text that itself has to be severely interpreted and embellished to be rousing - all the lines have an equal weight, a stop and start quality, that doesn't allow the production to flow and gives the actors very little with which to differentiate the inner life of their characters.

Director Michael Rubenstein sets The Crucible in a foggy and rough-hewn world, and when a character is not on the raised platform emoting, they watch from behind, a Greek chorus or ghosts or a jury. While this adds an eeriness and is an apt visual metaphor, it also emphasizes the schematic structure of the play and seems to infect the onstage interactions with characters declaiming and then retreating instead of interacting. The text also places much of the action offstage, we are told rather than shown, so that the possession sequences will take on more power. The cast is frequently choreographed  which somewhat solves this dilemma, but the balance between stylization and veneration, is just slightly off.

The cast does well within the restraints of the text with Nina Rose Taylor finely modulating a near-constant sobbing through the second act. Thomas Gough (BentDonors) applies crack timing to add some much needed comic relief, comic relief that only makes Giles Corey's ultimate, and offstage, fate, heart-wrenching. Many of the characters beg to have their story told, each has something crucial to say. And the cast has done their work, we may not know what their story or motivation but it is there, lurking in their eyes and bearing. 

What is the fate, the back story, of Tituba, a magnetic Magda Uculmana-Falcon, the Barbadian slave and conduit to the spirit world? Her passion cries out to be explored. Abigail Williams,the instigator of the frenzy, a ferociously stone-faced and charismatic Courtney Lamanna, robs her hapless uncle and flees to sea, but it happens offstage. Brandon Nicoletti, who directed Turtleneck, slides a hipster edge into the clerk, the enforcer, who is the height of hypocritical complacency. David John Phillips (The Mousetrap) is a swanning, gleefully power-mad Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth, simultaneously righteous and cracking with self-doubt.

Nicholas Koy Santillo and Jon Berrie are the central characters who have arcs instead of being archetypes. Santillo's Reverend John Hale has a natural oblivious curiosity that metamorphosizes from dogma to a moral questioning. Berrie is a stolid presence, the moral centre who gained his authority by being immoral, with an authentically puritanical, very Canadian, sex appeal. And that is the judgment on this The Crucible, a difficult text has been treated reverently and with intellectual rigour but a bit more theatrical magic would have made it bewitching.

The Crucible continues until Sat, Feb 3 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle. harthouse.ca

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