Review by Brittany Crowell

Surprisingly, as a theater kid, I have never caught a live production of the high school favorite The Crucible by Arthur Miller. That being said, I wasn’t spared its import to the theatrical index and have read it many times and been assigned scene work as Elizabeth Proctor and Abigail Williams.  Matt Cox’s newest work, being performed through the end of March at HERE Arts Center, is inspired by the same content as Miller’s classic, but oh so different in tone and style.

The creator of the wildly popular Puffs, Cox begins his new piece with a comical soliloquy from Satan, lauding his accomplishments on earth and stating how he had nothing to do with it: “This is all on YOU, humans.  This IS you.  This is who you are.”  This sets the stage for the “Witches!?” (not witches) that we spend the rest of the play with; and sets up the dramatic irony that the play will lean into.

The tone of the piece is quippy and funny with a palpable energy and pace which unfortunately doesn’t help lessen the slog of a two and a half hour show.  The strong ensemble, each playing multiple characters, performs with expert precision and makes clear choices for defining the differences between their roles (under the tuteledge or director Rachel Dart).  Some standouts include: Jessie Cannizzaro as elderly and good-hearted Goody Nurse, young and devilish Ann Putnam, and the corrupt reverend Increase Mather; and as Jake Keefe as a buffooning sheriff, foppish governor, and troubled townsperson; both of whom pivot between identities with ease.  Some actors shifted character with too much comic effect, moving further away from supporting the story and more towards perpetuating an inside joke.  This led to moment that felt like rehearsal room jokes that made it onto the stage; unfortunately, the audience just wasn’t in on it.  

Witches; photo by Brian Metolius

The script itself was quite strong, emphasizing certain structures and callbacks mostly to good comic effect, however, it would have been better served in a more succinct piece as the repetitive jokes began to tire after the second hour of performance.  Within the script itself were some standout moments where the structure shifted to allow for more reflection and honesty.   One such example is when the character Bridget Bishop (Jordan Sison), who remembers the last witch hunt in which she was imprisoned, is executed and finds herself a ghost in modern day Salem.  She reflects on her own experience and the commercialization of witches in the city, as she passes advertisements for with tours and costumes of “sexy witches,” concluding that she must indeed be in hell.  These moments were a nice reprieve from the onslaught of slapstick and really hit home the themes of the piece.  I enjoyed them and could have used a few more of them.

That being said, the humor and history of the piece were intertwined in really fun and insightful ways.  Jokes are made about how prisoners in that time were meant to pay for their own meals and keep, and fun facts shared about the amount of beer imbibed (maybe because it was safer than water?).  The show is narrated by an over-enthusiastic eighth grader, which scenic designers KC McGeorge and Noah Ruff  lean into to amazing class-project effect with creatively designed cardboard cut-out flats and props.

Overall, there is a lot of potential in this show.  I enjoyed the smart script and intelligent jokes as well as some of the slapstick moments and highly energized performances, but felt that the show lingered far too long and could have used a good tightening (not around individual performances as much, but) to hone in the story and hit home while getting us home before midnight struck.

 

WITCHES!?  IN SALEM!?

By Matt Cox; directed by Rachel Dart

FEATURING: Jessie Cannizzaro; Nick Carrillo; Matt Cox; AJ Ditty; Carolina Do; James Fouhey; Aaron Parker Fouhey; Jake Keefe; Dany Miller; Jessica MMosher; Jordan Sison.

Scenography and costume design by KC McGeorge & Noah Ruff; lighting design by Jonathan Cottle; original score by Brian Metolius; production stage manager, Vanessa Rebeil; crew, Kristina Lenkowsky; additional script contributed by Stephen Stout. Produced by Jonathan Cottle, Matt Xoc, and Jake Keefe in association with Bonfire Works Foundation. A part of the Subset Series  at HERE Arts Center.   145 6th Ave, New York, NY 10013.  https://www.instagram.com/witchesinsalemplay/