In the Garden of Evil

One girl’s lie to avoid trouble for dabbling in a voodoo ceremony unleashes a swathe of evil upon the city of Salem.  Under the hysteria of witchcraft, secret hatreds and jealousies are vented through baseless accusations sending innocent victims to the gallows.  Will a farmer burdened by his own secret sin be able to halt the onslaught?  Find out in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible currently playing at the Barn Players.

I have been involved with theatre for nearly 22 years.  I’ve acted, directed, stage managed, worked on crew, run lights and sounds, and reviewed shows.  Having experienced all of these different aspects of theatre has helped me to develop a sixth sense about plays and I’ve usually got a good feel for the quality of a show as I head into it.  As I walked into the theatre for tonight’s production of The Crucible, I had a feeling that this was going to be a pretty good show.  However, I must admit that my sixth sense was wrong.

This show wasn’t “pretty good”.  It was beyond amazing!!  It may very well be the very best drama I’ve ever seen staged.

Few writers could pen a tragedy as well as Arthur Miller due to his understanding of the human condition.  In The Crucible, he presents humanity at its basest and its stupidest.  It’s hard to fathom people being depraved enough to lie about their neighbors in order to steal their property or to satisfy a hidden grudge.  But it’s even harder to realize that supposedly intellectual judges could fail to see through such a farrago of nonsense and deception and forget that justice means innocent until proven guilty and not the other way around.

The Barn Players was fortunate to have David Martin helming this show because his direction was transcendent.  He brought Miller’s story to life in its full glory.  He not only understood the story’s darkness, but he also found the glimmers of hope and humor buried in the tale and brought them to light as well.  His staging was impeccable and made full use of the entire theatre.  You couldn’t punch a hole in the quality of his cast’s acting.  He also did double duty on sound design which was so apropos from the creepy, haunting music heading into the first scene to the relentless drumbeat to close out the show.

This is one of those shows where I’d like to do a write up on every single actor, but, for the sake of brevity, let me assure you that there wasn’t a weak link in the lot.  Each and every one was fully immersed in the story which only brought the audience deeper and deeper into it.  But I want to especially note the work of Charles Christesson who brought intelligence, levity, and heartbreak into the character of Giles Corey; Scott Shaw’s Rev. Samuel Parris, the “man of God” more concerned with power and reputation than faith; and Emma Cook’s portrayal of Mary Warren, a servant stretched to the edge of sanity due to being the rope in a spiritual tug of war between John Proctor and Abigail Williams.

I was particularly impressed with what Michael Juncker dug out of the role of Deputy Governor Danforth.  He plays Danforth as a man of strong, if misguided, character.  He truly believes in the cause of justice and honestly believes he is doing his part to rid Salem of witchcraft.  Yet his appalling cluelessness is sickening as he can’t see through the histrionics of the accusers, puts the letter of the law above its spirit, and claims to be doing the will of God, yet ignores the undisputed expert on witchcraft and true man of faith, John Hale.

Jessica Franz’s take on Elizabeth Proctor is as strong as it is tragic.  Ms Franz well communicates the sickliness of the recovering Elizabeth and ably portrays the duality of warmth and iciness in the character.  Elizabeth wants to love and trust her husband, but has difficulty doing so due to an infidelity on his part.  When her warmth finally wins out, it makes her horror at dooming John Proctor due to a lie she concocts to protect his honor all the more believable and heartrending.

I loved Phil Howard’s take on Rev. John Hale.  Howard’s Hale is a good man.  He is a decent man.  Sadly, when all is said and done, he is also a broken man.  Howard presents Hale as a truly devout man dedicated to God and ending the scourge of witchcraft.  But he is also an intelligent and just man who is dedicated to discovering the truth more than anything.   Howard’s anguish is palpable when he realizes the truth behind the Salem witch trials and tries to mitigate the damage by persuading accused witches to give false confessions which will preserve their lives, but excommunicate them.

Abigail Williams truly is a witch, but not in the magical sense.  In Lauren Hambleton’s capable hands, you will experience one of the greatest villains I have seen on stage.  Ms Hambleton’s Abigail is unspeakably disgusting and diabolically clever.  What begins as a simple lie to avoid punishment for participating in a voodoo ceremony evolves into a cunning plan to rid herself of her perceived rival in Elizabeth Proctor for the love of John Proctor, with whom she had an affair, and a chance to revenge herself on the “hypocrites” (though some truly are) of the town.  Evil just oozes from Ms Hambleton’s pores and I really appeciated the smarts she brought to Abigail who enhances her lies through information she gleans from Rev. Hale’s questions and books.

Andy Penn’s work as John Proctor is a tour de force performance.  Penn brilliantly essays the walking paradox that is Proctor.  He is a good man, but is bowed by the guilt of his infidelity with Abigail Williams.  He believes in God, but hates the hypocrisy of his church.  He is willing to make a false confession to save his life partially because he doesn’t want to have his death be a lie about him being a saint.  Penn provides a clinic in acting as he finds beats within beats within beats as he creates a man you will admire for his strength and pity for his weakness.

Steven Ansel James has prepared a wonderful bare bones set with its extended stage, docks, and chalk drawings of trees, heretical words, and occult symbols.  Chuck Cline’s lights gorgeously animate all of the emotional moments of the show.  Jenny Knecht’s costumes perfectly reflected the Puritan time period.

At one point, Rev. Hale wonders if the devil has come to Salem.  The sad truth is that he did because the people of Salem opened the doors and invited him in by succumbing to their own evil desires.  But even in all the darkness and mayhem, Arthur Miller still manages to show where there is a kernel of faith, hope, and decency, the devil can still be overcome.

This play is storytelling at its zenith.  If you want to see compelling, powerful, thought provoking drama, then you need to buy a ticket and see The Crucible.  It’s the best thing going in theatre this summer.

The Crucible plays at the Barn Players through July 30.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $18 ($15 for seniors 65+ & $12 for students with ID and groups of 10 or more).  There will be an Industry Night performance on July 24 at 7:30pm.  All tickets for this performance will be $12 at the door.  For tickets, visit the Barn Players at www.thebarnplayers.org or call 913-432-9100.  The Barn Players is located at 6219 Martway in Mission, KS.

Lethargic Farce Needs a Jolt

Renowned author and philanderer, Archer Connaught, is feared dead in a plane crash.  However he not only returns not dead, but with a new young love that he wishes to marry.  When Archer asks his wife, Josie, for a divorce, she reveals that they were never really married to begin with.  Instead of making things easier, things actually become more difficult since the world believes Connaught to be married.  The unwinding of this knotty problem is the story of James Elward’s Best of Friends, currently playing at the Bellevue Little Theatre.

Elward’s script actually begins with quite a bit of promise.  The plot is ideal for a good farce and the play does have some zippy wordplay and pointed zingers.  Unfortunately, the script runs out of gas by the end of the play with an unsatisfactory ending and non-endings to the story arcs of several characters.

The secret to a good farce is energy and I fear I may have caught this cast on an off night as the energy was sorely lacking in tonight’s production.  The pace had the consistency of glue and the cast really needed to tighten up their cues.  Volume was also an issue as a number of the performers did not project enough.

Emma Rasmussen makes her directing debut at the BLT with this production.  A rather new face on the directing scene, Ms Rasmussen demonstrates great potential with this show as there are several moments that truly sing.  However, some potentially humorous bits got overlooked and some beats needed to be dug into more deeply.  I also thought there were a couple of bland performances that needed some work as well as some distracting pieces of business that needed to be eliminated as it drew focus away from speaking actors.

Brian Witcher was quite an impressive find as he makes his BLT debut in the role of Archer Connaught.  He expertly walked that fine line of keeping Connaught unlikable, but still charming.  Connaught was an unhappy teacher who managed to hit it big with a novel.  Once he got money, he abandoned his family and nursed an addiction to women.  An addiction he seemed to be quite proud of.  Witcher is a highly animated performer with a knack of finding just the right turn of phrase and appropriate gestures at all of the right times.  As oily as this character was, Witcher managed to make me feel a little pity for him as he tried to fix his numerous broken relationships.

Janet Macklin does a solid job in the role of Josie Connaught, Archer’s maybe wife.  Ms Macklin has a grand gift for underplaying which worked very well for the most part.  Ms Macklin’s Josie comes off extremely loyal, at first, sticking by a husband who is at home very rarely and tolerating his infidelities.  That all changes once she reveals the lack of marriage.  That revelation also changes the tone of her underplaying as now everything she says is tinged with uncertainty leaving one wondering where the truth starts and ends.

Despite the overall good work, Ms Macklin does need to keep her projection up as it waxed and waned.  I also thought her confrontations with Archer’s lover needed to have a bit more edge to them.

Catherine Deluca’s turn as Kate Connaught seemed a bit listless and wooden.  She internalized a lot of the anger towards her father, Archer, due to his shabby treatment of the family.  That was not necessarily a bad choice, but I didn’t hear any variance in her delivery.  Ms Deluca also needed to react more when others were talking and speak up when she spoke.

Likewise, I considered Marcus Benzel’s portrayal of Archer’s son, Merrill, to be a bit one note in nature.  Benzel’s Merrill was a whiny, entitled lout, but he needed to nuance his delivery.  I do applaud him for bringing great energy to the role.  He actually seems a bit over the top which is not a bad thing for a farce.  But since he was the only performer doing so, he either needs to tone his performance down somewhat or the rest of the cast needs to raise their energy level to match his.

Melissa Jarecke brought a welcome jolt of juice with her rendition of the sardonic literary agent, Hazel Dunn.  She had some of the strongest scenes in the show and her dialogues with Archer and Josie sparked with vitality.  Alexander Hamilton is splendid in the small role of the hapless attorney, Felix Heckaday, who gets caught up in the lunacy of the Connaught family.  Tom Steffes brings terrific comedy relief as the drunken juggler/Justice of the Peace, Mr. Bledsoe.

This show did have quite a few strong technical aspects.  Joey Lorincz continues to impress as one of the best set designers in the city with a gorgeous study complete with rich green hues, a crackling fireplace, and well appointed library.  I loved Pam Matney’s sound design as it consisted of some of my favorite classic rock numbers.  The actors were also well costumed by Leah Skorupa-Mezger.

At the end of the night, I felt there was a truly great ensemble performance trying to break out of this show.  With a much needed dose of energy and some fine tuning of performances, I believe this cast can overcome the slight weaknesses of the script and have a great laugher on their hands.

Best of Friends continues at Bellevue Little Theatre through Feb 28.  Performances are at 7:30pm Fri-Sat and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $18 for adults, $16 for seniors, and $10 for students with proper ID.  Reservations can be made by calling 402-291-1554 between the hours of 10am-4:30pm Mon-Sat.  This show does deal with some adult subject matter and is not recommended for children.  Bellevue Little Theatre is located at 203 E Mission Ave in Bellevue, NE.