BWW Review: VINEGAR TOM at Shotgun Players
Four-time Obie Award-winner Caryl Churchill is the pre-eminent writer of feminist themes involving sexual politics, abuses of power and gender equality. There's no better metaphor of these themes than the witch hunts of 17th century England which provide the backstory of Vinegar Tom, an allegory that rings so true today. The play, which includes a modern score by Diana Lawrence sung by a Greek chorus dressed as street walkers, bridges time to illustrate the continuity of women's struggle against shaming, disempowerment and inequality. In director Ariel Craft's skillful hands, Churchill's sad satire blazes anew with a remarkable cast and technical crew that conjure both history and the present in vivid detail.
From its menacing opening scene where Alice, the poor unwed mother encounters a man in black (Dov Hassan) calling himself the devil, to the sad denouement, Vinegar Tom explores the demonization and shaming of certain women, mostly of lower economic class, husbandless and lacking the means to rise above their stations. Alice, played with simple wisdom that belies her status by Bay Area veteran Megan Trout, is enticed by this man of power, believing that he may be her means of escaping her existence. Called a whore and sinner, Alice knows full well that female sexual desire is used as a weapon of control by the patriarchal society. In her reality, "anytime I'm happy, someone says it's a sin. "
Alice's mother fares little better. Old, widowed and destitute, Joan, played with startling authenticity by Celia Maurice, is Alice's sad future. With nowhere to go and no options, she's perfect fodder for victimhood. In the midst of this beautifully detailed 17th century and costumed period piece, a Greek Chorus of female singers dressed as street walkers (Lydsee Bell, Perry Fenton and other cast members) offer the first of many contemporary songs by composer Diana Lawrence for an early production of the play and smartly chosen again by director Ariel Craft and musical director Daniel Alley. "Nobody Sings" is about a first period of youth and the inevitability of "the change" and old age.
Jack and his wife Margery are poor farmers toiling the fields and their luck is running slim - their cows are kicking off one by one, there's a many tomcat (Vinegar Tom) invading their dairy and its about to get worse for them. Jack (Dov Hassan) is a no nonsense, religious man ruling his tiny kingdom because its his god given role as a man. Margery (Jennifer McGeorge) is also god-fearing, churning the butter with just a hint of agitation and regretful expectation. When she argues with Joan over a request for some yeast, Joan damns Margery and her farm. These words of anger spoken in the heat of the moment will have dire consequences.
There are three other female victims presented here; Betty (Sandy Shao), the landlord's willful daughter who refuses an arranged marriage, Ellen (Sam Jackson), an herbalist shaman and Alice's best friend Susan (Amanda Farbstein), another poor unwed mother pregnant with her second child. The song "Oh Doctor" juxtaposes the horrors of early medical practices against thousands of years of homeopathic cures. Churchill's women of Vinegar Tom challenge conventional role models and will be condemned for their daring - the recent struggles of women may not be so far removed from Vinegar Tom's generation.
Diana Lawrence's score seamlessly weaves its way through the proceedings, merging past and present. The production is blessed with set designer Nina Ball's simple wood framed barn with its multiple levels and staircases. Director Craft moves her actors around this structure with the assistance of choreographer Natalie Greene adding a physical element to the harsh interactions between characters. Dialect coach Nancy Carlin and costumer Brooke Jennings compliment this astonishing cast with historical accuracy.
Alice, Joan, Ellen and Susan will all be accused of witchcraft, the sentence of the day for non-conforming women, heretics and the unwanted. There's a hideous scene of the women being examined by the local witch hunter Packer (Sarah Mitchell) and her all-too-eager apprentice Goody (Melanie Dupuy). The women are charged without evidence based on the idle accusations of dalliances with the devil. The women are pricked with a sharp object to humiliate them. Faced with this unreal persecution Joan admits to being a witch while Alice delivers an angry diatribe wishing she had the power of a witch saying, "if I only did have magic, I'd make them feel it."
The finale musical number quotes Ecclesiastes, "All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of woman". Three reasons are given: their credulous and therefore lose faith more easily, second, women are more impressionable, and third, women have slippery tongues. Throw in an affinity for carnal lust and you have the basis of the oppression of women that is strongly entrenched in the male psyche. Shotgun Players excellent production of Vinegar Tom seems just as fresh as when written in 1976 during the women's rights struggles for ERA. The women portrayed may have been victims then but are martyrs today.
Vinegar Tom continues through January 19, 2020 at Shotgun Players, The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley. Tickets available at www.shotgunplayers.org or by calling 510-841-6500.
Photos by Ben Krantz.