Tag Archives: Renaissance Theaterworks

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 Mass Global Goodbye

Photo by Ross Zentner

by Jeff Grygny

We never learn her name; she’s called “The Detective.” She wanders, bemused, amid piles of grey cardboard banker boxes littered with household detritus, including an antique telephone, a hand-cranked Victrola, and an ancient typewriter, enshrined like holy relics of the Industrial Revolution. “I didn’t always live like this,” she confesses. Thus begins Tidy, a brand-new play by Kristin Idaszak, in a production by Renaissance Theaterworks, produced as part of the World Premiere Wisconsin initiative. We’ll spend the next eighty-five minutes in this room with The Detective in a state of mounting unease, as the play gradually veers, as if pulled by implacable geologic forces, from contemplative musings into the realms of conspiracy, dystopia, and apocalypse.

Idaszak deftly spins a dense web of genres: social satire, hard-boiled mystery, domestic drama, memory play, psychological thriller, even a touch of prop comedy. The surreal setting is reminiscent of Beckett’s Theatre of the Absurd,. The play’s scientific/political themes echo the novels of J.G. Ballard, while its steady drip of sinister revelations might be out of a film by M. Night Shyamalan. Our protagonist is simply trying to clear her apartment of clutter, using the principle of feeling whether a possession sparks joy, and if not, thanking it and saying goodbye. As she goes along, reminiscing over the various tchotchkes she and her wife have collected, we learn that her wife—coincidentally named “Joy”— is a geologist who specializes in mass extinctions, and that her research is for some reason both classified and gives her certain privileges. We learn about the six mass extinctions in Earth’s history, with the last being the Anthropocene, which we are living in now.

The Detective’s most poignant memories come from her childhood on her parent’s farm, where she named all the trees on the land and loved especially one grand tree. When we hear of month-long tornadoes, of abandoned buildings and relocation centers, of how meat and vegetables have been replaced by synthetic food, it becomes apparent that this world of “next year” is very different from ours. This is a very effective way to tell a big story in the most cramped of settings, and if it seems a bit didactic at times, it still leaves us greatly unsettled— which is most certainly the playwright’s intent.

Director Elizabeth Margolius and an inspired crew of artists work hard to vary the tones and rhythms of what is basically a long monologue. Cassandra Bissell brings great warmth, humor, and pathos to a character slowly recognizing just how bad a situation she’s in. As she goes about her tidying mission, her “thank you”s begin to turn into “I’m sorry”s as she realizes just how much she has to let go. (This is especially heartbreaking for those of us who can still remember a world with more butterflies, temperate seasons, and open land.)

photo by Ross Zentner

Special praise is due to the design team who created this dreamscape: Scenic Designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec and Lighting Designer Noele Stollmack, who realize a dynamic sculptural environment that becomes a second character; also Christopher Kriz’s sound design, that sensitively captures the range of emotional tones, from elegiac to menacing, and Yeaji Kim’s video projections, that wash over the stage like memories, plus a stunning final image that overpoweringly conveys the sense of a world split open to reveal an awesome and terrible reality. (Most of these artists, along with the Director and Playwright, are based in Chicago—make of that what you will.)

Generally, contemporary artists seem to struggle with our ecological crisis. Scientific data and creative expression don’t often exactly sing together, and the modern ideal of art is to interrogate and deconstruct, rather than to offer answers. Idaszak leaves The Detective’s fate ambiguous. We’re not even sure if her world is real or a paranoiac fantasy. By so doing, the Playwright plays both to people who accept climate science and those who feel it’s overblown or all a conspiracy. But whether or not this play will convince any climate skeptics, it’s an effective warning: a flashing red light signifying that, as Greta Thunberg urged us, we really must “change everything” about the way we live. This is a great place to start.

Personally, I’d like to imagine that The Detective is reunited with her Joy, who arrives to take her out of her materialist cocoon to a refuge where people are beginning the great adventure of creating a culture that works, not to conquer nature, but to cooperate with it. Now that would be something to see.

Renaissance Theaterworks presents


 by Kristin Idaszak

playing through April 16


If you’d like to contribute to international climate change activism, you could visit avaaz.org

For an innovative approach to bringing the performing arts to our relationship with the natural world, see:  

Adventures in the Deep World: A Report on The Performance Ecology Project