Over the years, I’ve come to expect good things from the Red Bull Theater company. Founder and Artistic director Jesse Berger’s mission is to revitalize seldom-performed Jacobean plays, and they do some of the best early modern productions in New York. This year, with “The Witch of Edmonton,” they’ve taken a somewhat obscure three-author masterpiece & turned out the best night I’ve had at the theater this year.
Jean Howard’s notes suggest that Thomas Dekker probably wrote the Mother Sawyer/witch and demon Dog scenes (pictured above), William Rowley probably wrote the Cuddy/clown subplot, and John Ford probably wrote the Frank Thorney/bigamy-and-murder main plot. But what’s amazing about the show is how well it all coheres, even as the three plots and modes fight to one-up each other.
The Frank Thorney subplot, with its two wives, paternal blackmail, and echoes of both Hamlet and Lear, sounds like straightforward 17c melodrama, but Chris McCann plays the lead part with a wonderfully opaque quality. Even his connection to his serving-girl first wife, for whom he murders his yeoman’s daughter second wife, gets occluded by his evident desires to play all the parts before him. The plot-knots of his narrative see him try to please his father by marrying wife #2, his aristocratic former master by covering up marriage #1, and even the devil-Dog, by murdering the second wife who’s unwisely followed him into a lonely field. The Times review doesn’t think he was quite up for the tragic heroic verse he performed in act 5, but I think he was always playing a man slightly opaque to himself. A great, oddly compelling performance.
The stars of the show, of course, were the Witch and her big black Dog, who is the Devil. Derek Smith plays a stage-dominating Dog, heaving his massive frame around, using sticks for front legs, & often inhabiting those dog-human postures — tummy rubs, panting, nuzzling, humping — that we all know well. The Witch-Dog relationship, in physical and theatrical intensity, upstaged and commented on the mercenary and manipulative marriages of Frank’s plot: the Witch and Dog show what really happens when bodies come together. Mother Sawyer, the poor woman who turns ambivalent witch, was brilliant, charismatic, and compelling. Unlike Frank, she knows herself too well, and turns to the Dog because she has only too clear an idea of her place in the village.
Cuddy the clown’s part got trimmed somewhat, though Adam Green gives him an engaging turn. Ben Brantly says the acting was “uneven,” but I didn’t think so. Frank’s two wives, his sister-in-law, and various suitors were all strong. Sam Tsoutsouvas played a powerful, plain-spoken yeoman father — an audition for someone to cast him as Lear?
I’ve always loved Red Bull’s intense, fast pacing and their commitment to an ensemble method, in which no one star outshines the rest. (Perhaps that’s why was slightly disappointed by their Duchess of Malfi last year, which needs a real star.) Jesse Berger has really built something great with this company.
When I find out what they’re playing next winter, I’m going to build my spring syllabus around it.