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Witch
by Catey Sullivan
2018-10-10

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By: Jen Silverman

At: Writers, Gillian Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glenview. Tickets: 847/242-6000 or Writerstheatere.org; $20-$80. Runs through: Dec. 16

It's tough to think of a world premiere this year with more resonance than Jen Silverman's Witch. Raging, hopeful, weeping: No matter how you leave Witch, you won't leave unscathed.

Set in vaguely Shakespearean-era Britain, Jen Silverman's script creates a world of long ago, when men were allowed to marry/rape/kill whomever they want, generally with impunity—and where women of outspoken intelligence are condemned and ostracized as witches. Witch takes place 500 years ago. Witch takes place today.

Directed with tremendous impact by Marti, Lyons Witch opens with a monologue from Elizabeth, aka the Witch of Edmonton. It closes with a monologue from Scratch, aka the Devil. These inverted bookends create a portrait of 16th-century England that is as specific and meticulously detailed as the needle-point chair-cushion tapestries that adorn the set.

Through Elizabeth ( Audrey Francis, whose command of the stage increases and intensifies with every passing year ) and Scratch ( Ryan Hallahan, covering a vast spectrum from abject evil to vulnerable-as-a-puppy ), the story unfolds.

The plot centers on a transaction. Scratch offers Elizabeth and vengeance in exchange for her soul. She's not having his petty nonsense. She wants to hear the pitch he'd give a man. As the play winds on, his sales pitches become listening sessions. Here's Elizabeth, talking to Scratch:

"There are so many times in which I want to say something and then I don't—because there's a voice in my head, it says, 'What's the use?' It says, 'Do you really want to draw attention?' And I want to speak, but I get so tired, I just get so tired that in the end it's easier not to."

Catch Hallahan's expressions during Francis understated, tsunami-powerful delivery. You can see the scales dropping. And then Scratch silently emotes denial, pouting, dismay, anxiety and—as the acceleration toward panic ratchets up—denial again. Because she's got to be exaggerating, right?

Elizabeth and Scratch are surrounded by deft subplots that make the primary story richer, deeper and more entertaining. The entire supporting cast fills even the smallest moments with. Potent, telling details. Arti Ishak as the maid in the the local castle; Steve Haggard as Cuddy, the gay, depressed son of Lord of the Manor Sir Lawrence, David Alan Anderson as that jocularly entitled lord and Jon Hudson Odom as Cuddy's machismo rival for Lawrence's love—they are all vivid and meticulously recognizable.

The action ( including Matt Hawkins' stunningly realistic-looking brawl ) plays out Shibagaki's immersive set which moves from hovel to castle with brevity and grace. The story is further enhanced by Mieka van der Ploeg's costumes, which reference Elizabethan fashions with a minimalist elegance. Paul Tobin's light design and Mikhail Fiksel's sound design give the world beauty and dimension.

Under Lyon's diamond-clear direction, Witch is a shard of light, a rip in the muck that makes it known that light still exists. To address the final, quiet, thunderingly-impactful seconds of Witch: There is hope in that realization. Maybe not for your future, but for somebody's.


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