Theater Review: WITCH (Geffen Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on September 4, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


Written by Jen Silverman and directed by Marti Lyons, Witch is inspired by William Rowley’s Jacobian 1621 play Witch of Edmonton. The classic story follows Elizabeth Sawyer, a woman forced to the outskirts of society who finds revenge on her bullying neighbors by selling her soul to the devil. Well, not the devil, really, a lesser demon — in Silverman’s sharp, insightful, thought-provoking play he’s a representative of the devil’s team: a “junior salesman,” as he puts it, bartering for souls in exchange for granted wishes. Indeed, Witch, receiving a rapturous West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, jumps from Rawley’s premise and contemporizes it with fully colloquial, anachronistic language that brings the fable into today’s world, even as the design elements draw on Jacobean styles.

Silverman’s script is full of dark humor that not only allows us to be fully engaged throughout the 95-minute one act, it helps to take in the heavier critique of modern times. The play’s universality comes in questions that have plagued man — or, at least, Faust — for millennia: For what are you willing to lose your soul? Is it worth it? Is it us who ultimately does the Devil’s work? Did the devil make us do it, or was he just a cattle prod? (We’re never really sure in Witch what becomes of the souls once the devil is in possession of them.)

There are two simple storylines: First is that of the effeminate Cuddy (gloriously funny Will Von Vogt), the scion of widowed Sir Arthur (superlative Brian George) and heir to his riches. Cuddy is vastly jealous of Frank (Ruy Iskandar), the strapping well-spoken proletariat whom Arthur has adopted, just as Frank is jealous of the bratty Cuddy’s inheritance. Coming into play will be Arthur’s maidservant Winnifred (Vella Lovell), whose past with Frank may stand in his way of winning over Arthur. We are in on the conflict immediately as we witness the “brothers” individually share their desires with Scratch, or the Devil (Evan Jonigkeit, equally charming, hollow, handsome and unctuous). The other story involves Elizabeth (Maura Tierney, thoughtful and grounded), the ostracized witch who develops an unexpected kinship with Scratch as he returns to her hovel again and again.

This dark comedy — a theatrical thrill ride — does indeed bring renewed importance to the storyline. I’m not as sold with Lyons’ use of slapstick; it draws us in, but at the cost of believability. It also creates some mannered acting in an otherwise flawless, distinctive ensemble. Cricket S. Myers’ sound is superb, from the music to the drops of rain hitting the inside of a bucket. Scenic Designer Dane Laffrey creates two locations by having Arthur’s banquet table glide out over Elizabeth’s home. Keith Parham’s lights are rightfully dark and spooky. Above all, it is Danae McQueen’s costumes of ruffs and ribbons and regality that truly bowled me over. Steve Rankin choreographed the shocking fight scene between Cuddy and Frank.

photos by Jeff Lorch

Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater
Geffen Playhouse
10866 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood
Tues-Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on September 29, 2019
for tickets, call 310.208.5454
or visit Geffen Playhouse

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