I saw this show a while back, and when I didn’t write about it in a timely fashion, I figured I would skip it. But I can’t stop thinking about it, so here we are.
The show, directed by Ben Lambert, was an all-female production of Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play about a 17th-Century witch hunt. Going in, I didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t seen or read the play, although I generally knew about it. I had some misgivings about a man directing this play, with an all-female cast. I wondered if it would feel dated or uncomfortably relevant.
It did not feel dated. Uncomfortably relevant would be an understatement. I can definitively say, I have no need to ever see a “traditionally cast” version of this play.
I’ve done a lot of cross-gendered casting and one all-female production, so I brought that lens in with me. What I saw was that the director and actors had tapped into the power of that casting choice, using it to highlight the play’s misogyny. Because I was the KCACTF respondent, I had the opportunity to ask the students some questions after the show. One thing I asked was, “What did the all-female casting teach you about gender, or about this play particularly?”
One of the students, who played a man, said, “I think some of the horrible things I had to say had more power because I understand them.” She turned to her scene partner from the top of the show. “Like, if I call you a whore, that’s different from if a man called you a whore, because you know that I know the full impact of that word. So we experience it differently.” I hadn’t heard it put quite like that before, but that is definitely one way that placing misogynist language in the mouth of a female actor (playing a male character) highlights and expands it.
Another woman said, “I also understood men more, by playing a man in this story. He is trapped by people’s beliefs about women, too. And this play doesn’t let women off the hook—one of the worst people in the whole thing is a woman who accuses and attacks another woman.”
The actors talked a lot about the sensitivity with which Ben handled the challenging task of directing this production. He was nearly always the only man in the room. “He asked us a lot of questions, and really listened to what we had to say,” one student said. “He let us tell our story, and was just helping us make it clear.” That’s the only right way to handle a situation like that, and from everything I heard and saw, he got it exactly right. That kind of sensitivity and empowerment was apparent throughout the staging. Each actor understood her character’s journey, beat by beat, and had the kind of ownership that let her make strong choices in each moment. The production had a high level of emotional commitment. It was gripping in a way that only comes from actors creating something from inside themselves, not just doing what a director said they should do.
In between the scenes that moved the story forward, Churchill’s script has lyrics for songs; my understanding is that productions typically have to come up with the tunes themselves. In the JMU production, Jessica Del Vecchio, a faculty member, composed the music. She drew a ton of inspiration from ’90s Riot Grrrl music and culture, and it worked. The ’90s vibe kind of helped connect the thread of the play, from the 1600s to the 1970s to the 1990s to now. In some ways, it helped the play feel relevant and real. In other ways, it made me think of that sign I see older ladies carrying at ERA rallies: “I cannot believe I am still protesting this shit!”