Tag Archives: Jen Silverman

The Devil You Say

photo by Ross Zentner

by Jeff Grygny

In a little town near London, Elizabeth Sawyer was accused of killing her neighbor with magic, of consorting with the devil (who appeared as a black dog named Tom), and of various other profanities and blasphemies. She was tried and executed as a witch in the reign of King James I in 1621.

Elizabeth’s story inspired a popular play that was performed that same year. Rather surprisingly, It depicted her as a poor, lonely outcast who only takes up witchcraft when she has no alternative. “Tom” was played by an actor—I love to think, in a dog costume. The Witch of Edmonton worked Elizabeth into a narrative web of family drama, murder, infidelity, and a bit of comedy. It was a big hit, kind of like one of today’s streaming miniseries.

And now, 400 years later, Jen Silverman, “one of the most-produced playwrights in the country,” has adapted The Witch of Edmonton into a fascinating new piece, Witch, which is currently playing in an artful production by Renaissance Theaterworks. She’s trimmed the story and shuffled the characters around, but retained the prestige drama combo of family intrigue, wicked satire, metaphysical peril, and even a bit of Harlequin romance, all bundled into a tight, compelling plot that keeps us in a state of pleasant indeterminacy.

Elizabeth herself opens the play. Her hair is gray, but neatly bound. Her dress shows the signs of many launderings. As represented by the formidable Marti Gobel, she radiates warmth, intelligence, and weariness. “I’m not arguing for the end of the world,” she says, “but then again, maybe I am.” And in a gnomic, insinuating speech, she adds “Do I have hope that things can get better?”

Then we meet the devil—or a devil, at any rate. Instead of a talking dog, we have Neil Brookshire, debonair in a good haircut. A traveling salesman, just arrived in town, scouting for prospects. But though his talk is all agreeable—no pressure—his unwavering smile and the dead look in his eyes would raise a real dog’s hackles. He’s skillfully peeling off the defenses of a foppish young man named Cuddy, the son of the local lord. Moving on, he next easily uncovers exactly what Cuddy’s rival would trade for his immortal spark. We notice that, though everyone is in 16th century garb, they’re  talking like modern urbanites, using anachronistic phrases like “full disclosure,” and “cone of silence.” With all the eventual dynastic rivalry and erotic complications, it can feel more like an episode of Succession than The Lady’s Not for Burning. But Silverman’s dialog is witty and fun to hear. When Scratch pays his inevitable visit to the local witch, well, let’s just say it’s not what anyone expected.

photo by Ross Zentner

The acting is all first-rate: along with Gobel and Brookshire, Reese Madigan brings a Lear-like befuddled grandeur to the role of Sir Arthur, mooning over the never-seen painting of his (dead?) wife. (I wish someone would explain his very modern bandana). Joe Picchetti brings fire to the role of the ambitious Frank; Eva Nimmer makes herself visibly invisible as the beleaguered maidservant Winnifred, whom he brutally betrays. And as Cuddy, James Carrington gives one of his best performances ever, with honesty, complexity, and humor.

The production crew brings the script to life wonderfully, each in a slightly different way. Director Suzan Fete’s stage direction is clean and unfussy, with a fine ear for dramatic and comic timing. The costumes by Amy Horst look rich and lived-in, except for Cuddy’s outfits, which are as clashingly queer as his sexuality. Jeffrey D. Kmeic has created a spectacular sculptural ceiling reminiscent of the dried herbs used by village healers (Elizabeth doesn’t mix any potions, though: she’s only a witch by reputation). And Josh Schmidt’s sound design quotes an old festive carol, electronically modified to evoke disquiet.

Historians cite many reasons for the great witch trials that swept Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, including “the little ice age,” a period of global cooling that brought about famines and plagues. Feminist historians have also noted that many people found easy scapegoats for the time’s social unrest in “unruly” and isolated women; a phenomenon Caryl Churchill rigorously explored in her play Vinegar Tom.

In a 2015 interview, Silverman said “I want to write aggressive, highly-structured, darkly comedic plays, often involving women or queer characters, often exploring various facets of identity and legacy and home-coming and institutional violence.” So what drew her to an antique play about a witch and a devil? (Was it the talking dog? Her play Blink features a vengeful ghost cat, so, maybe.)

Or maybe it’s because as an intelligent outcast, Elizabeth can see outside the conventions of her culture, that the endless stupid cycle of drunken lords and scheming brothers struggling for power is just one way of running a society, and one day, maybe, there might be something different. Surely Silverman doesn’t want us to simply conclude that the devil is the patriarchy. But then again, maybe she does.  

 Renaissance Theaterworks presents


by Jen Silverman

playing through November 12


The end of the modern world, or: The Cat’s Meow

photo by Testaduro Media, LLC

by Jeff Grygny

Everyone must envy cats at least a little. Their animal grace, insouciant self-centeredness and power of surrendering completely to relaxation makes them plausible role models for humans in these fraught times.

We can’t totally envy Wink, the title character of Jen Silverman’s surreal tragicomedy currently in a well-mounted and heartful production by The Constructivists. The catastrophe that strikes Wink initiates the action of the play, which is so full of surprising turns that to describe them would be to commit unforgivable spoilers. Suffice it to say that the feline plays a catalytic role in the lives of all three non-animal characters. The contrast between human and animal, and the dire consequences of alienating our animal nature, provides the flesh and gristle of the play’s themes. Eerily creepy and wryly humorous, Wink is a perfect show for the Halloween season.

Sofie and Gregor are ordinary modern people of a slightly earlier time: he works in an office, she does housework at home. They are modern in that they have no animal grace, no insouciant selfishness, and no power to surrender completely to relaxation.    

At first it seems like the play is going to be a quirky domestic comedy. Director Jaimelyn Gray has coached her actors’ opening scenes towards a cartoonish delivery that mirrors the characters’ strangeness to themselves. In fact, this is not a realistic play at all– rather, it stages a dreamworld that seems to be trying to tell us. . . something, if we could just break the code. As the couple, Rebekah Farr and Ekene Ikegwuani show us two deeply unhappy people, whose secret depth is revealed only in their separate sessions with a therapist, Doctor Frans, played with clueless sincerity by Matthew Scales. His staggeringly bad advice—with repeated emphatic instructions to take their feelings and “Slam them down,” show him as a minor priest in the modern ideology of service to the status quo. When each of them confesses urges to commit unspeakable violence, Frans dismisses them, telling them that their duty is to just go back to their jobs.

As the fourth character, Jaime Jastrab gives us the uncanny essence of a vengeful domestic pet (or maybe its ghost?) and, in later scenes, gives Frans instructions on getting in touch with his animal nature, which are ludicrously basic, yet seem to come as revelations to the  feckless expert. These scenes, like “self help from a cat,” make up the warm heart of the play, and are most illuminating as to the playwright’s possible alliegance. But they are soon followed by apocalyptic episodes of Sofie and Gregor’s metamorphoses from modern people into uncanny beings whose intentions come from a place of the mysterious, irrational roots of human nature. Soon the Ikea-furnished living room is littered with the wreckage of civilized life, as the couple descend into primitive and far from socially sanctioned behavior.

This ground has been tread before, in plays as diverse as “The Zoo Story,” and “Equus.”  But Silverman skins this cat in a new way. She doesn’t romanticize mental illness, nor does she really even seem to be interested in clinical case studies. If anything, the play is a winking red light warning us of what can happen when we subsume our animal needs to serve what society tells us we should be. Maybe, with his new-found insights, Frans will be able to integrate human and animal natures, and help Sofie and Gregor claw their way back to humanity. Maybe he will join them in their dangerous fantasies. That would be another story.

In the meantime, when we wonder how so many people throughout the world can rebel against expert authority, deny science, become prey to demagogues who appeal to their lowest instincts, why people can commit mass shootings, or what could compel someone don horns and animal skins in a futile coup attempt, we could reflect on this story, and how the modern way of life subtly mutilates us all.

The Constructivists present


by Jen Silverman

Directed by Jaimelyn Gray

Set and Costume Design by Sarah Harris

 Set Construction by Les Zarzecki

Lighting Design by Ellie Rabinowitz

playing through November 6

This production contains adult subject matter. Viewer discretion strongly advised.