After Alice (Megan Trout) has sex with a stranger (Dov Hassan), she takes a cloth, opens her legs and wipes herself clean. The director of Vinegar Tom, Ariel Craft, announces her intention to shock the audience with that semi-graphic opening scene (“semi” because Trout remains clothed). But the promise of that initial gambit doesn’t come to fruition. Caryl Churchill’s singspiel, from 1976, draws parallels between a series of 17th century English witch trials and contemporary inequalities between the sexes. The plot, concerning a witch trial, isn’t very far removed from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. But Churchill isn’t interested in retelling a conventional story arc. Or one with a male protagonist’s perspective. She adds in an all-female Greek chorus who punctuate the drama with cabaret songs.
When the singers appeared on stage in revealing, Gothically disheveled, jewel-toned dresses — like the ones that Helena Bonham Carter wears — I was expecting an atonal, discordant Mass modeled after Sweeney Todd or Shockheaded Peter. Instead of a carefully controlled nod to distress and madness, the singers rolled their shoulders in ironic vamps and rolled their eyes to indicate a high degree of camp. They might have been mistaken for extras from a Cole Porter musical who’d landed on stage in the wrong theater. Tonally, they were a mismatch for the playwright’s commentary about the troubling relationships between men and women. Vinegar Tom doesn’t call for winking voluptuaries. The subjects of a contrived witch trial – invented by petty, punitive men – deserve the fierce, howling energies of gorgons and harpies as witnesses in their defense.
As expected, Alice will, of course, be persecuted for her salacious interlude. As a single woman living in the 1600s, she’s already suspect for being unwed. Her status in society is questioned from the start, and by the man who’s just slept with her. In that opening scene, they engage in a post-coital exchange that must echo the flirtation that brought them together in the first place. As they parry the conversation back and forth, an imbalance of power emerges between them. He gets off by psychologically abusing her, the embodiment of toxic masculinity. The man wants her to praise him for his sexual prowess. That’s the only thing he needs from her.
When she realizes that the man doesn’t want anything more to do with her, Trout increases the amount of tension in Alice’s voice. She sounds desperate to escape from her limited circumstances. But Churchill, striving for realistic allusions to the era, has predetermined her fate. The playwright boxes the character in. There’s nowhere for her to go except toward the gallows. But it’s not her affair that brings her to the attention of the authorities. Joan (Celia Maurice), her odd bird of a mother, is the catalyst.
Alice and Joan live next door to Margery (Jennifer McGeorge) and Jack (Dov Hassan), a married couple who own a farm together. When things start to go badly for them (the butter won’t churn!), they blame Joan for their problems and accuse her of using Vinegar Tom, her cat and supposed familiar, to curse them. Hassan also played Alice’s stranger. When he showed up later in a different costume as Jack, I mistakenly assumed that Alice was having an affair with her neighbor.
There were several moments like that during the play when I felt that neither the playwright nor the director was willing to orient the audience. Churchill’s trying to convey a message about the way men treat women — but the drama takes place in a fog. The characters, and their relationships to each other, aren’t introduced with any clarity. People just show up during blurry transitions and then exit stage left. I also found that the cumbersome set design didn’t provide any helpful sense of place from one scene to the next. It all seemed to be happening in the same room and on the same day.
One character’s monologues authentically matched up with her behavior, Alice’s friend Susan (Amanda Farbstein). Farbstein betrays Alice when Packer (Sarah Mitchell), the head witch hunter, questions her. What Susan doesn’t grasp is that she’s also dooming herself. Packer puts Alice, Joan, and then Susan, on trial. With a sharply pointed tool, she draws blood from the accused to confirm their guilt. This is an affecting and effectively drawn scene of torture that segues into a final musical number featuring top hats, canes and tails. The plot isn’t resolved. It just vanishes into a vapid song and dance routine. Vinegar Tom goes to a great deal of toil and trouble to bruise the patriarchy but fails to cast a coherent spell.
Vinegar Tom, through Jan. 19, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. $7–$44; 510-841-6500 or shotgunplayers.org