By Tulis McCall
Ivan van Hove puts his stamp on his productions with such force that an observer is certain to remember them always. The Crucible by Arthur Miller, now in revival at the Walter Kerr Theatre is no exception. Past productions of van Hove here in New York include Hedda Gabler where the theatre was gutted and in the concluding scene the doctor poured tomato juice all over Hedda at the close of the play. The Misanthrope was staged inside a glass box that shielded the audience from the food the actors threw at one another. The Little Foxes was performed on a velvet set with no furniture so that the actors had to sit on the floor. The excellent Scenes From A Marriage had a first act in which three plays were performed in concert three times with the audience moving counter-clockwaise from one space to the next. The aforementioned were all produced by New York Theatre Workshop. Most recently his View From The Bridge on Broadway has everyone walking about ankle deep in blood.
The upshot is that, while you may be a little foggy on any given plot, you won’t forget the director. No sireee. And frankly, the actors must be having a great time because they keep coming back for more, which is a good thing for us.
The Crucible is the iconic story of the Salem witchcraft trials – well, a slice of them anyway. When Abigail Williams (Saoirse Ronan who is not recognizable as the girl from Brooklyn) gets a taste of what it’s like when grown-ups take you seriously, she starts to reshape an entire community. She was, of course, not alone. Witchcraft and the supernatural threats were the terrorism of the times. In particular there was a stretch of 9 months in 1692 that resulted in the deaths of 20 people. In her recent book The Witches Stacy Schiff writes that in this 9 month epidemic in the Massachusetts Bay Colony alone “somewhere between 144 and 185 witches and wizards were named in 25 villages and towns”. People were hanged, tortured and burned. All suspect. None proven guilty.
How and why this all happened has been the subject of speculation for three centuries. Miller does not detour down this road. He takes us into the heart of the calamity. One accusation begets a suspicion resulting in a certainty that suffocates logic. The only person who choses to challenge Abigail and her accusations is John Proctor (the fine Ben Whishaw) who, in doing so, will have to admit to adultery with Abigail. This he will do to save his wife Elizabeth (Sophie Okonedo who is remarkable) who has been accused and taken into custody. As John assumes more visibility the forces begin to spiral out of control around him until he is left face to face, mano a mano with the Deputy Governor Danforth (Ciarán Hinds) who is a master at deflecting logic and cutting swaths of destruction disguised as law (sound familiar?). In the end John chooses his truth which is surprisingly resilient and Danforth is left to his hollow proclamations.
In a 1996 New York Times review of the movie of The Crucible Miller said, ”I have had immense confidence in the applicability of the play to almost any time, the reason being it’s dealing with a paranoid situation. But that situation doesn’t depend on any particular political or sociological development. I wrote it blind to the world. The enemy is within, and within stays within, and we can’t get out of within. It’s always on the edge of our minds that behind what we see is a nefarious plot.”
Were this a less cumbersome production it would be a cinch to look at the recent Republican fracasse and make a direct connection. Public declarations that lead to violence; pronouncements based on myth; denials on demand. And we do make that connection, but it is because Miller’s text cannot be completely disregarded. It manages to fight its way to the surface through the many conflicting elements weighing it down. And there are plenty. The action appears to take place in a private girls’ school where the blackboard has a life of its own. Council scenes are reminiscent of 12 Angry Men. When the Proctors are brought out of their cells their appearance conjures up Beckett’s Endgame. Who’s story is this anyway? And oh yeah, what about that “wolf”?
In this incarnation of The Crucible van Hove has slowed time down. Nearly halted it in its tracks to the extent that we occasionally feel as though we are watching suspended animation. The actors interactions with one another, despite the fact that all of them give very fine performances, appear choreographed rather than organic. This Salem is encased like a snow-globe that generates its own gently swirling, interminable, maddening storm. Aided by the unrelenting score by Philip Glass that serves the dual functions of driving the audience batty and masking much of the dialog, this production nearly sucks the wind out of our collective sails. Instead of immersing us in the uncertainty of the past to the extent that we get a fresh crackling view of our own precarious circumstances, this production, for all the sound and fury spread about the stage and flying in through the windows ends up signifying nothing.
THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller, Directed by Ivo van Hove
WITH Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo, Saoirse Ronan, Ciarán Hinds, Bill Camp, Jim Norton, Tavi Gevinson, and Jason Butler Harner, and features Tina Benko, Teagle Bougere, Michael Braun, Jenny Jules, Thomas Jay Ryan, Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut, Elizabeth Teeter, Ray Anthony Thomas, Brenda Wehle, and Erin Wilhelmi.
Sets and Lights by Jan Versweyveld, costume design by Wojciech Dziedzic, sound design by Tom Gibbons, video design by Tal Yarden, movement by Steven Hoggett, and music by Philip Glass.
Jordan Roth. President, Rocco Landesman. President, Emeritus, Paul Libin, Executive Vice President, Jack Viertel, Senior Vice Presidnt, Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Len Blavatnik, Roy Furman, Peter May Ja,y Alix & Una Jackman, Scott M. Delman, Heni Koenigsberg, Daryl Roth, Jane Bergere, Sonia Friedman Productions, Ruth Hendel, JFL Theatricals, Stacey Mindich, Jon B. Platt, Megan Savage, Spring Sirkin, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Executive Producers, Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner John Johnson Present THE CRUCIBLE. Opening on Thursday, March 31st at the Walter Kerr Theatre (219 West 48th Street). Running time 2 hours 45 minutes. www.thecrucibleonbroadway.com