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BWW Review: Ivo van Hove Takes Possession of Arthur Miller's THE CRUCIBLE

For a director who earned a reputation on this shore by having Hedda Gabler douse herself with V8 juice and the title character of THE MISANTHROPE squeeze ketchup down his pants, Ivo van Hove's tackling of Arthur Miller's classic The Crucible seems rather tame by comparison.

Elizabeth Teeter, Saoirse Ronan, Tavi Gevinson
and Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut (Photo: Jan Versweyveld)

Oh sure, there's that move in the production's first ten seconds guaranteed to start the eyes rolling among veterans of his oeuvre, and the inclusion of an on-stage dog playing the part of a wolf, but unlike, say, his minimalist surface-skimming of Miller's A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE offered to Broadway audiences earlier this season, this time around there appears to be, for the most part, a sincere effort to work with the material, rather than completely overwhelm it with his scarcely-related vision.

If not his best work, The Crucible may be the playwright's most popular, with its wide accessibility and subject matter that's easily relevant to high school students. When it premiered in 1953, the parallels he was bringing up between the 1692 Salem, Massachusetts witch trials and the blacklisting of artists accused of ties to communism during the McCarthy hearings surly hit home with New York's theatre community, which became a refuge for Hollywood actors and writers being suddenly denied work. But in the 60+ years since, the allegory can apply to any situation where frightened people bond over the mistrust of a vulnerable group.

Jan Versweyveld's set gives the sterile appearance of a large and empty warehouse, minimally converted, as suggested by Wojciech Dziedzic's costumes, into a parochial school for girls. Saoirse Ronan makes an impressive professional stage acting debut as Abigail Williams, the young orphaned servant who takes revenge on Elizabeth Proctor (Sophie Okonedo), the wife of her former employer and lover John (Ben Whishaw) after she discovers the affair and dismisses her.

Sophie Okonedo and Ben Whishaw
(Photo: Jan Versweyveld)

Before the action of the play begins, Abigail and her friends - including her cousin Betty (Elizabeth Teeter), the daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris (Jason Butler Harner) - are caught dancing in the woods with Tituba (Jenny Jules), the woman from Barbados who is Parris' slave. Betty faints before it's revealed that they were practicing a love spell.

In a community thick with fear of the devil, the adults start suspecting witchcraft, and, taking their cue from Abigail, young girls start complaining of pains and the loss of control of their bodies. Accusations start flying up the social hierarchy until they reach Elizabeth.

While Abigail is no doubt the instigator, the question of whether her cohorts are also faking, or if they actually believe themselves to be the victims of unearthly doings, is up in the air. At first, the director limits supernatural spectacle to moments where it's questionable if what the audience sees is actually occurring, but by the play's end van Hove seems to be telling us that, yes, the devil is at work here, undercutting the playwright's intention.

While there's a cold distancing throughout the evening that keeps the production from fully engaging, there are still numerous good points. Philip Glass's eerie underscoring nicely evokes understated emotions, Jim Norton adds to his long list of enjoyable stage turns as the gritty Giles Corey and Ciarán Hinds is subtly menacing as the McCarthy stand-in, Deputy-Governor Danforth, who's determined to roll as many heads as necessary until the situation is under control.

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From This Author Michael Dale