Trinity Square Ensemble

at the Coronet Theatre

Some time back, you may recall, Senator Albert Gore’s wife, Tipper, made headlines by spearheading a campaign to “expose” rock song lyrics that promoted drug-dabbling, salacious sex, and satanic sentiments. The campaign–deliberately launched in the summer, when there weren’t more serious items on the congressional agenda to distract the media’s attention–eventually faded from the news. (This all happened, of course, before the good Gores joined the post-Ginsburg bandwagon and revealed that they themselves had used recreational drugs during rebellious “youthful indiscretions.”)

We don’t burn our witches anymore, but sex and satanism still make for a good political bonfire. What tends to get overlooked is the question of why some people are, in fact, drawn to satanism. Some scholarship has clarified the processes by which pagan gods and goddesses were distorted and transformed by the Christian patriarchy into images of evil: for example, the fertility god Dionysus, with his sacred serpents, cloven-hoofed satyr sidekicks, and cult of frenzied female bacchantes, became the witch-seducing devil of medieval Christianity, while the significant role of woman as the vessel through which Satan operates has roots in ancient man’s efforts to stamp out mother-goddess worship.

In her 1976 play Vinegar Tom, having its midwest premiere at the hands of the Trinity Square Ensemble, British writer Caryl Churchill focuses on a more earthly aspect of satanism. Churchill’s theme is the sexual and economic politics that fueled the mid-17th-century persecution of alleged witches, at the height of which an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people were executed in one 20-year period. Rather than basing her script on a specific incident (as, say, Arthur Miller did in The Crucible), Churchill paints a composite portrait of how different women’s responses to their difficult lives was branded as witchcraft by the male-dominated establishment. If that description sounds like a prototype of feminist rhetoric, so it should: Churchill’s play was commissioned by the British women’s theatrical collective Monstrous Regiment, and it makes no bones about stating the case for women’s righteous anger at unfair practices of the past and the present.

Churchill’s argument is that in the middle 1600s–a time of civil war, religious upheaval, and rampant ignorance, poverty, famine, and illness–accusations of witchcraft became a too-common explanation for the many ills that might plague a family or parish: infant mortality, infertility, bad crops, and sick livestock. In such an environment, any woman who deviated from the highly restricted norm might become suspect.

To dramatize this schema, Churchill traces the interlocking tragedies of five women caught up in a witch purge. Alice, a sexy girl with a bad reputation, longs for a lover to take her away from her oppressively small and squalid country community; her mother, Joan, gets drunk and sponges off her neighbors. Betty, unwilling to accept the marriage her family’s arranged for her, tries to run away and ends up getting treated with leeches for “hysteria”; Susan, a pregnant young wife who nearly died in her last childbirth, is taken by Alice to a local herbalist for an abortion. And Margery, the devout and long-suffering wife of farmer Jack, is confounded by a spate of afflictions that, she reasons, can only have been brought on by a witch–and that witch must be Joan, since the two older women recently had a fight.

Churchill examines how the unrelenting pressures of their sex and their circumstances tear at these women, turning them against each other and leaving them ripe for the cruel abuse of the play’s real devils: the men. They are three men in particular: Jack, Margery’s overworked and ill-tempered husband, who must find a scapegoat for his frustration over his sexual impotence and chooses Alice after she rebuffs him; a fellow identified simply as Man, whose seduction of Alice begins the drama; and the Puritan witch-hunter Packer, who travels the countryside to save communities from the satanic scourge (at 20 shillings a head). Like Hitler blaming the Jews for economic depression or Chicago’s Reverend Hiram Crawford pegging AIDS as God’s retribution against homosexuals–or even Tipper Gore, blaming Ozzy Osbourne for teenage rebellion rather than inadequate parents–Packer offers certainty in a time of uncertainty; he identifies and ritually destroys certain culprit/victims in order to absolve the body politic. The tortures he inflicts on the unfortunate “witches” he uncovers–Joan, Alice, and Susan–bring Vinegar Tom to its horrifying climax and leave the audience enraged at the powerlessness of the characters. This, of course, is Churchill’s point.

Unfortunately, as if she wasn’t sure she’d made her point, Churchill interrupts her drama’s action with a series of songs, sung by actresses who have doffed their 17th-century costumes for modern dress. The songs themselves–with music in a Celtic folk style by Helen Glavin, arranged for this production by Michael O’Toole–are excellent, beautifully harmonized and superbly sung. But they drive home points that have already been driven home; they don’t add new levels of understanding as do, say, Kurt Weill’s songs in The Threepenny Opera (an obvious inspiration for Churchill). And as the drama grows progressively more gripping, the songs seem increasingly insipid, undermining rather than reinforcing the playwright’s thesis that the prejudices facing 17th-century women were not that different from those facing contemporary women.

Toward the middle of the second act, Churchill adds yet another element: directly presentational monologues by the characters to the audience. Again, these detract more from the play’s effectiveness than they add to it–especially when they border on camp, as when Packer’s one-eyed assistant, Goody, talks about her experiences with the master witch-hunter: “It’s interesting work . . . it’s nice working with a professional.” For a final twist–after we have watched the heroines suffer and hang for their noncrimes–we get two women dressed in tuxedos doing a vaudeville turn on the Malleus Maleficarum (“All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable . . .”), followed by a soft-rock number featuring the actresses, dressed in modish, bourgeois pantsuits, squirming toward us and singing something about “We are the witches now.”

Perhaps in 1976 Churchill’s bag of tricks had more impact. And a lot of the problem lies in the current production. Vinegar Tom needs to be played to the hilt: it’s political theater, full of burning sarcasm and raw anger, but this production, directed by Karen L. Erickson with help from Charles Coyl, doesn’t rise to the occasion. At one point in the play, the piggish and impotent Jack pleads with the unwitting seductress Alice to give “it” back to him–his genital sensation. And so she does, with a grab to the balls that brings him to his knees in shock, pain, and arousal. That moment should have the audience shouting out instinctively–in vicarious pain and in encouragement for Alice’s cathartic anger. Indeed, almost all of this play should prompt intense interaction between actors and audience; the shifts between historical drama and presentational cabaret theater should be swift and startling, but here they’re only sluggish and obtrusive. There’s no questioning the sincerity of the actresses when they are playing their 17th-century characters: Pamela Wesselmann as Alice, Bernadette O’Malley as Joan, and Linda Rae Reiter as Margery are particularly strong. But they don’t grab the stage with their presences as they should; despite their fine singing of Churchill’s didactic songs (Susan Payne displays an especially powerful folk voice), they don’t convince us of their gut-level commitment to the politics of this play.

In the male roles, Marc A. Nelson and Tim Kough have a bad-guys’ field day: Nelson makes farmer Jack a boor you’d like to beat, while also showing you the man’s imprisonment by superstition and poverty, and Kough is a chillingly single-minded authority figure as the witch-hunter Packer.

Frank Stilwagner has designed the kind of set that can make you fall in love with the theater all over again: a network of ramps and steps and levels that immediately stirs the imagination. Justyna Frank and Natalie Mills share credit for the convincing period costumes; but whoever coordinated those modern pantsuits should be burned at the stake!