Del Rosso Review: VINEGAR TOM

 

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 13.57.382015 is the 29th season for the PTP (Potomac Theater Project), and their 9th year in New York City. They are an exciting, adventurous company to watch for in future, currently running in rep Howard Barker’s play “Scenes from an Execution” (also reviewed in ONE Magazine) and an evening of two little-known and not often produced one-acts: Howard Barker’s“Judith: A Separation from the Body” and Caryl Churchill’s “Vinegar Tom.”

“Judith” is strange kettle of fish. The Book of Judith is not intended as factual history; it is more symbolic in the vein of David and Goliath. Judith (Pamela J. Gray) , a beautiful Jewish widow and The Servant (Patricia Buckley) pass through the enemy lines of the Assyrian Army and into the tent of the General, Holofernes (Alex Draper). There, with her cunning and feminine wiles, Judith seduces the general with lies and artifice but does not sleep with him; instead, he drinks too much, passes out and she beheads him, saving Israel from destruction.

But this is not what Barker had in mind, nor the story he tells, at all. A woman committing murder to save Israel is thrown out in lieu of a battle of the sexes, and is only mentioned at the very end of the play. Beginning on a spare set with Holofernes playing chess by himself (get it? He needs a worthy opponent?) Judith and her servant appear at his tent. Let the games begin.

The general claims he “cannot be loved.” Judith says, “Only politics keep us apart.” Ultimately, Judith comes to care for the general but still beheads him: we kill the things we love? And then in classic Barker fashion, Judith mounts the headless corpse, to frustrated effect. Men: can’t live with them, can’t live without them? And Judith exhibits the exact same cruelty to her servant that the general does when alive. She becomes him. So…women are just as bad as their counterparts?

Judith could have emerged morally compromised yet victorious, celebrated by her people, having to live out the rest of her life contemplating what her sacrifice cost. The sudden change to cruelty and her defiling of the corpse is cheap and too easy.

Holofernes’s “tent,” by Hallie Zieselman, is spare and contemporary, as are the costumes by Mira Veikley. They are almost sleek, with the diminutive general in gray trousers, shirt and black boots and tall, blonde Judith in a draped dress, then a black, sheer, long slip and thong. I am a huge fan of Alex Draper, perfectly cast as Holofernes (and unrecognizable from his role as the Doge of Venice in “Scenes from an Execution”) and Pamela J. Draper, mercurial as Judith. But the play as it stands discards the more interesting themes, and, written in 1992, seems anachronistic to this reviewer.

“Vinegar Tom,” by Caryl Churchill, is set in a small, northern England village in the 17th century. Between scenes, a female trio performs a sort of cabaret-type performance; those songs take place in the present.

Churchill wrote “Vinegar Tom” in 1976; she said in her research, she “discovered for the first time the extent of Christian teaching against women and saw the connections between medieval attitudes to witches and continuing attitudes to women in general.”

So there is slut-shamed Alice (Tara Giordano), who has sex out of wedlock and is a single mother. Next is Margery (Kathleen Wise) an abused farm wife, a workhorse, and in desperation to regain her husband’s love, she accuses Alice’s widowed mother, Joan (Nesba Crenshaw) of being a witch. Joan also owns a cat named Vinegar Tom, later accused as her “familiar.” There is young Betty (Caitlyn Meager) who bucks an arranged marriage and in turn is locked in her room, then bled and purged of her “illness.” Susan (Chelsea Melone) has three children and is pregnant with another; she is conflicted but takes a potion to rid herself of the child, and in later guilt, exposes Ellen (Lucy Faust), the herbalist (now one would call her a homeopath) to the charge of witchcraft.   The only ones who escape hanging are Margery, who is married, albeit unhappily; and Betty, who has no choice but to succumb to the arrangement of wedlock. This cast, including Bill Army as Jack, the brutish husband and Steven Dykes in various roles, was uniformly wonderful, with just a few slips of accent. This is a big play for a one act, and costumes, by Annie Ulrich, are evocative and spot-on for the period. The set looks more elaborate, and entirely different but that is clever camouflage by designer Hallie Zieselman.

You might think that the cabaret trio would add levity. Don’t. Churchill wrote the scathing lyrics to the songs, a nice contrast to the lilting melodies by Carol Christensen.

Churchill got it one act: as long as you are a woman who behaves and conforms within the confines of society, you will be fine. Has all that much changed?

 

If Barker had read “Vinegar Tom” before he had written “Judith…” perhaps Judith would have wowed Holofernes with her intellect, drank a few glasses of wine, had great sex, still beheaded the general, of course, to save Israel, and still emerged victorious but without the transformation and degradation.

If Churchill could have read “Judith,” before writing “Vinegar Tom…” I don’t think she would have changed a thing.