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Review: UT Department of Theatre and Dance Casts A Spell with THE CRUCIBLE

Arthur Miller's THE CRUCIBLE is powerful, infuriating and heartbreaking, and the UT Department of Theatre and Dance does a mighty job of doing his script justice. A staple in practically every high school lit class in the United States for decades, the title evokes a reaction in the general public akin to forgotten song lyrics. If you hum a little, eventually, the song comes back to them, at least in parts. THE CRUCIBLE, you know the one - about the Salem witch trials and how a teenage girl takes advantage of the climate and stirs up trouble in the whole town just so she can have her way with a local farmer, who she never should have been trifling with in the first place.

A more academic synopsis involves the local minister Reverend Parris (Ismael Vallejo) who has caught his niece Abigail (Audrey Gerthoffer) out dancing in the forest along with several of the other local girls. Two of them, including his daughter Betty (Milly Rangel) have taken ill, and Parris is terrified, not so much that she has been taken by the devil but that his reputation will be soiled when his congregation learns that the girls were out conjuring spirits with his slave and the community's alleged devil conjurer, Tituba (Taylor Courtney). Later, when the group of girls find themselves alone together, Abigail threatens to kill anyone who reveals that she had also drank blood in a curse to kill Elizabeth Proctor (Rama Tchuente) her nemesis and previous employer, whose husband John Proctor (Nyles Washington) she had once had a very brief affair with. Scorned by her dismissal by both Elizabeth and John Proctor, Abigail has her heart set on vengeance in any way she can get it. In short, Abigail and her friends then take advantage of a growing fear of witchcraft in their community and feign possession by the devil each time an adversary comes close to discovering that they are fraudulent. Their lies continue until over sixty people die from the accusations of Abigail and her friends. Despite the reasoned arguments of both their own friends and the expert in witchcraft Reverend Hale (Kat Lozano) hoping to reason with them, even the court is convinced that the girls are telling the truth. The real heart of the matter lies in John and Elizabeth though, who are more full of integrity than their God fearing accusers would ever be, and the painful repeated decisions the two of them make that lead to John's demise.

Written in the 50's as an allegory during the Communist scare, Miller points out in a New Yorker article in 1996 that the story is about the fanaticism and paranoia of a society at odds with itself, but "below its concerns with justice, the play evokes a lethal brew of illicit sexuality, fear of the supernatural and political manipulation... ." It's unfortunate, perhaps, that these themes repeat themselves in the American psyche with such regularity. It's also a tightly wound story, written to spring and wind tighter so nicely there's joy in the frustration of it all.

The cast of this production does a terrific job of moving this story around all the twists it is supposed to make. Solidly executed and directed by Michael Fry, with additional contributions from it's co-directors Robert Ramirez and Jess Shoemaker, there are very few flaws to point out. It appeared that every actor in this show committed to the material and its context and galvanized that information in the role played. Even more refreshing is the extent to which these student actors gave themselves over to the story of these characters as individuals in this larger context. This is a show that was felt, not just performed. It is impressive, and frankly, hard to find a cast so large without at least one broken link. There was no broken link here. This cast was intense. There was much chewing the scenery going on here, but it was all in the best way possible.

Worthy notable mentions go to Gerthoffer, whose Abigail is absolutely hateful, as she should be. Nyles Washington gives John Proctor an impassioned seriousness in the face of incredulous circumstances. He winds John up so tightly in the last scene that we can feel the excruciating heartbreak of his choice, while Rama Tchuente as Elizabeth provides a steady cornerstone to his frenzy. Kat Lozano's Reverend Hale is a strong presence as well, guilt ridden and pained perhaps by her inability as an alleged expert to keep so many innocent victims from such tragic demise. These three have their work cut out for them in other ways as well, as Washington and Tchuente are black actors and Lozano is a woman. In 1692, when this play is set, the culture would find such notions as a socially equal black couple and a female Reverend incredulous, yet these three actors seamlessly help us forget such discrimination. Lozano has the biggest challenge here, and she delivers Hale with a delicate balance of perfect authority. Luke Daniels carries several scenes impressively as well, but this should be no surprise given his repertoire of work. These are just a few standouts in a cast that is without a visible weakness.

Aaron Kubacak's costume design is beautiful, especially those worn by women whose roles were gender switched, and particularly Reverend Hale's terrific hat. Lighting and set design for this production is clean and straightforward. One of my only two big critiques of this production is about the lighting, which is certainly acceptable, if unimaginative in places. My other concern is the blocking as executed on a thrust stage. Understandably, I'm going to miss some of the action. The blocking was for the most part well informed and varied. There were many beautiful pictures made, but on more than one occasion, lines were delivered entirely upstage during critical moments of the play. However, these are minor quibbles for an otherwise outstanding production.

In all it's infuriating madness, THE CRUCIBLE stands on its own merit. This cast and production team only enrich this story with their commitment to excellence.

THE CRUCIBLE

by Arthur Miller

Directed by Michael Fry

University of Texas School of Theatre and Dance

Oscar G. Brockett Theatre at The University of Texas

300 East 23rd Street

Austin, TX, 78712

November 08 - November 19, 2017

Running time two hours thirty minutes with a ten minute intermission

Tickets available at Texas Performing Arts

Running time two hours thirty minutes with a ten minute intermission.



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