Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Witch of Edmonton

The Witch of Edmonton
part of SummerWorks Festival
Trinity Bellwoods Park, August 13 - Toronto

The Red Light District Theatre Company
by thomas dekker, william rowley, and john ford.
directed and conceived by catherine dunn and ted witzel.
adapted by the ensemble (michael-david blostein, val cina, marcel dragonieri, lauren gillis, jonah hundert, mina james, ron kelly, kat letwin, reid linforth, jess moss, ted witzel, eve wylden)

The Edmonton of this play's setting has nothing to do with the familiar city of northern Alberta. Written in 1621, the play was written as a collaboration credited to Thomas Dekker, William Rowley and John Ford, and based on real life events that had just transpired.

I didn't know that before joining the goodly throng who gathered at the gates of Trinity Bellwoods Park on Friday night, and at first the reference to Edmonton seemed almost disconcerting. But it didn't matter. The Red Light District Theatre Companys refreshing and highly entertaining approach blended the Jacobean text with much more modern sensibilities, including a stylized approach to costuming, and the woodland atmosphere of the park itself to come up with a thoroughly enjoyable meditation on the general rottenness of the human race.

The labyrinthine plot has three threads. Central to them all, while she doesn't actually appear much at the beginning of the piece, is the Witch (Mina James). The play portrays her as simply an old widow who's persecuted by the good towns folk for being different, for living alone. When she's beaten by them, she turns to the devil to ask for revenge, and he shows up in the form of a dog named Tom. And I have to concur with the Witch herself, who describes him as a sexy dog, which is just the kind of dog that the devil would be, isn't it? Ted Witzel brings a wonderful sense of physicality to the role, which had him up in the park's trees, barking at the incidental dogs in the park, and up on rooftops playing the violin.

Another plotline involves the son of an impoverished gentleman. He marries a poor servant girl out of love, and believes she is pregnant with his child, but then also marries a rich girl at his father's insistence, in an attempt to restore the family's fortunes. Tom the devil is present as he makes his violent choice between the two of them - but you know he's only exploiting the naked self interest that's already there. The third thread sees the village idiot, played here by Reid Linforth with a believable sense of other worldliness and an ever present hobby horse, befriend Tom. It's a tale of lust, betrayal, murder and persecution, with the towns people revealed as a self serving and morally corrupt lot. The young cast brings a delightful sense of gusto to the drama, peppering it with a wry sense of humour.

The white face makeup was a stroke of genius, rendering the actors much more visible in the darkening park, (although they did also distribute a number of flashlights for the audience to use). It combines with white and black costuming in a mishmash of styles from various eras from the early 20th Century to the present for a look that really worked. The story seems over the top, and the surreal touches added to that effect, even as the darker thematic thread rang true to human nature.

The production takes you to various spots in the park, with the added atmospheric bonus of people (and dogs) who just happen to be there - like the guy on a bike who rode by yelling Who are you people?? as we all clambered into the dell, and the little kids who ran away from the devil when he jumped out of the tree (good instincts!)

Sadly, the story, as it turns out, is 100% true. Elizabeth Sawyer, the real life witch of Edmonton, was executed on April 19, 1621. R.I.P.

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