Frank is thrilled to announce that our upcoming production, Caryl Churchill’s acclaimed play VINEGAR TOM, will be presented by the Ritz Theater, Sept. 12-Oct. 5, at the newly-renovated theatre located at 345 13th Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN 55413. Tickets are $20-$25. For tickets and reservations, please call the Ritz box office at (612) 436-1129 or by go to http://www.ritztheaterfoundation.org/box-office. (No performance on Sat., September 20; that evening, Frank will host its annual silent auction fundraiser. For information on that event, please call (612) 724 3760.)
VINEGAR TOM opens with a roadside tryst between a strange man and a young woman. She asks him to take her to London with him; he scoffs, saying if she is not a wife, a widow or a virgin, then she must be a whore or worse, a witch. Set against the backdrop of the 17th century witch hunts in England, VINEGAR TOM focuses on women impoverished and trapped by their class, and the perpetuation of their status. In this world, varying from the norm is a crime, and everyone is looking for a scapegoat for the unordinary, the uncomfortable, or the inexplicable. Right or wrong is never a question, and simple finger-pointing serves as judgment. The horrific implications of 17th century witch-hunting echo through history right up to the present. The historical setting of the scenes is contrasted with songs that wield a contemporary edge.
VINEGAR TOM’s stellar cast includes Patrick Bailey, Virginia Burke, Dona Werner Freeman, Emily Gunyou Halaas, Katrina Hawley, Christopher Kehoe, Lori Neal, Anika Solveig and Cheryl Willis. The production is directed by Frank Artistic Director Wendy Knox, costumes by Kathy Kohl, Scenery by Andrea Heilman, lighting by Michael Wangen, and sound by Zach Humes. The production includes original music written by Annie Enneking, Marya Hart, Pablo Jones and Ruth Mackenzie. It is stage managed by Kasey Brandy and Spencer Putney.
VINEGAR TOM, written in 1976, is an early work by a writer who is one of the most produced playwrights in the world, Caryl Churchill; Frank has presented two of her other works—our acclaimed production of TOP GIRLS in 1990, and MAD FOREST in 1993. Churchill said, "The women accused of witchcraft were often those on the edges of society. I wanted to write a about witches with no witches in it; a play not about evil, hysteria and possession by the devil but about poverty, humiliation and prejudice, and how women accused of witchcraft saw themselves."
'Vinegar Tom' is a Churning Caldron of Well-Staged Drama
By ROHAN PRESTON, Star Tribune
September 13, 2008
What a piece of work.
After copulating with a woman in the English countryside in the convulsive opening scene of Caryl Churchill's "Vinegar Tom," the man suddenly turns on her, calling her a whore and a witch.
She pleads with him for understanding. Poor and unmarried, she wants to go with him to the city in hopes of a better life. He responds by threatening her with violence. As he leaves, she grabs his leg and wants to know something: his name.
Frank Theatre's spirited and persuasive production of Churchill's historical drama, which opened Friday at the Ritz Theater in northeast Minneapolis, viscerally transports us into a world ruled by rumor and superstition.
In this society, sketched by Churchill and artfully brought to life in shadows and voices by director Wendy Knox, it's easy to be a witch: All you have to do is stand accused. How does a witch-hunter prove it? Throw the accused into the river. If she sinks and drowns, then she's innocent. (Dead, too.) If she floats, then she's a witch, and must be put to death.
There's another method: If she's cut and does not bleed, proof. If she bleeds, it means that the devil is in her, and is helping her conceal the spot.
The result of all this witch-hunting is that society can be turned upside down in an instant, with women being victims as well as enforcers of the weird order.
Knox's production is first-rate and engaging, even if it teems with an unrelieved misogyny, rooted not only in superstition but also tradition and religion.
Some of the songs, by a group of composers that includes Ruth MacKenzie, Annie Enneking and music director Marya Hart, have a contemporary ring that is inconsistent with the historical setting. Also, it was jarring to hear, in two of the numbers, the c-word for female genitalia.
Otherwise, the staging has some notable turns. Emily Gunyou Halaas, who plays a scorned woman named Alice, takes us on this journey in a beautifully engaging performance. She does not fuss over an English accent but instead communicates, with a composure that suggests she has come to us directly across the centuries, the condition of people in a time that we should never re-live.
She has good company, including tall, scruffy Christopher Kehoe, who plays the scorning man with a throat-hacking hatred. Kehoe also depicts a doctor who treats hysteria in women by cutting, as well as a witch-hunter who cuts women to see if they bleed. Those other parts only heighten the crazy patriarchal domination of this world.
There are also nice, if smaller turns by Virginia Burke as a wife, Patrick Bailey as her husband and Lori Neal as a cunning woman, in a show of brutal vivacity.
Timeless Power in Tale of Women, Witchcraft
By RENEE VALOIS, Special to the Pioneer Press
September 13, 2008
There's nothing subtle about Frank Theatre's latest production about women accused of witchcraft in 17th-century England. The story graphically illustrates the abuse of powerless women at the hands of men who desire to subjugate and control them. Old women, wise women, poor women and rich women who don't do what they're told, all become easy targets — especially when a cow gets sick or a child dies and superstitious villagers become desperate for someone to blame (other than themselves).
Although we're sure from the start that some will suffer a bitter fate in "Vinegar Tom," fine acting keeps inevitability from diminishing the story's power. Emily Gunyou Halaas kindles the spark with her portrayal of Alice, an unmarried mother who has a tryst with a black-clad stranger in the woods.
Her neighbors, Jack and Margery, quickly become the tinderbox that leads to conflagration. Jack (Patrick Bailey) lusts after Alice, who rebuffs him. Margery (Virginia Burke) detests Alice's elderly, alcoholic mother, Joan (Dona Werner Freeman), who frequently stops by to beg for handouts. When the couple's cows get sick, they eagerly blame the mother and daughter for their troubles, accusing them of witchcraft. Soon, others are thrown into suspicion, and a sadistic witch-hunter arrives to cast a wide net over the town's women.
Cast members change into modern dress to sing the original music created for the production that intersperses with the action. The songs hit us over the head with the show's meaning for our 21st-century world. One woman sings about how people were blinded by her beauty and now they're blinded by her age. Another song suggests that a desire for "evil women" makes men deliberately seek them. Truth, cynicism, humor and vulgarities for women's genitals mix into lyrics set to harmlessly pleasant tunes.
One part of the staging feels jarring and out of place. Apparently to cover up some necessary behind-the-scenes changes, a carnival-like tent facade appears, and two actresses dressed as men perform a vaudevillian act that's faux-funny in its deliberate misogyny, complete with fake laugh track. It feels shoehorned in and even more heavy-handed than the rest of the show — and doesn't quite conceal the set change occurring; people walking by with ladders become distracting.
Director Wendy Knox pulls no punches in her vision of the sour world of "Vinegar Tom." Although the feminist play was written in the 1970s, it doesn't feel as dated as it could, given the recent attacks on Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Palin. Knox's visceral production suggests that society still aims to destroy women who try to claim their power.
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