By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
In 17th Century England, Alice (Ciera Harding) and her mother Joan (Markia Nicole Smith) are accused of witchcraft in Caryl Churchill’s feminist drama, “Vinegar Tom.”
Alice has a passionate rendezvous with a mysterious man (Micah Stanek) in the woods. After their brief encounter, she becomes obsessed with him. She’s constantly pining for him and describing his lascivious actions to her friend Susan (Allison Svagdis).
Her neighbors, Jack (Daniel Murphy) and Margery (Bridget Murphy) are vexed with a multitude of problems. Their cows are diseased and their marriage is a disaster. Jack is in love with Alice and blames her for his impotence with Margery (he has no problem rising to the occasion when he’s with Alice).
There’s another subplot involving Betty (Caroline Travers), a young woman from the gentry who doesn’t want to marry. Her reasons become obvious when she meets Ellen (Jamie Rafacz), a cunning woman (who studies herbal cures).
By the way, the titular character in the play is Vinegar Tom, Joan’s old tomcat. It’s a familiar story (get it?). The name Vinegar Tom comes from the witchfinder general himself, Matthew Hopkins, in his pamphlet “The Discovery of Witches” written in 1647, wherein an alleged witch calls out the names of her familiars (creatures that help her with her dark magic).
Of course, “Vinegar Tom” isn’t really about witches. It’s about pride, poverty and prejudice. At one point Witchfinder Packer (Stanek) says, “Though a mark is a sure sign of witch’s guilt, having no mark is no sign of innocence.” It’s the Kobayashi Maru – no win scenario.
The ending is pretty cut and dry. It won’t leave you hanging (if only the same could be said for half of the cast). Oh come on now. It’s a play about witches in the 17th Century – it can’t be considered a spoiler to know that some of them are not going to survive.
Harding is a joy to watch as Alice. Though a lot of her dialogue is repetitive, she finds new and exciting ways to say it.
Daniel Murphy (there are two Murphy’s in the show and they play husband and wife) plays Jack with desperate intensity.
Rafacz’s Ellen is so subdued and likable she seems as if she wandered into “Vinegar Tom” from another play, making her fate more tragic. Rafacz does a magnificent job portraying her.
Stanek’s male characters (he plays several) are all villains, and he’s very good at being bad.
There’s a light-hearted scene with Kramer (Erin Hyatt) and Sprenger (Zetra Goodlow). The authors of the “Malleus Maleficarum” are presented like sideshow carnival barkers or snake oil salesmen. It’s a whimsical prologue after a gruesome finale. Kudos to director Daras for casting women in the roles.
There are a lot of scenes (twenty-one in all), even though Daras and scenic director Gianni Downs have come up with brilliant ways to get us from one scene to the next, the transitions add needless length to the run time.
Luckily, many of the aforementioned scenes are punctuated with songs by the Tomcat band, enhanced by the mellifluous voices of Liron Blumenthal, Elise Dorsey and Caroline Bachman. It’s an unfettered joy to watch those women rock out. They are gloriously supported by their bandmates Emmeline Jones, Braxton McCollum, Chris Knudsen and Tim Judah.
Downs has created large cotton swaths – like bed sheets – scrawled with quotes from famous women in history all over the theater from Thatcher’s “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman” to the Elizabeth Warren meme “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
“Vinegar Tom” seems overly long (much like “The Crucible”). It takes a long time to get to the end, but the ending is emotional and powerful.
During the opening and closing scenes, the actors gyrate wildly to the band. They are so exuberant – you’ll want to get up and dance with them.
“Vinegar Tom” runs until March 10 at the Point Park, 350 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.