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Vinegar Tom...No Cat, No Witches...No Matter

Susan and Alice

Susan, Kaleigh Howland and Alice, Shai Warfield-Cross in a happier moment ((IU Theatre))

I’m George Walker

Vinegar Tom at IU’s Wells-Metz Theatre is Caryl Churchill’s drama of witches in 17th century rural England. Vinegar Tom and those witches appear only in the imagination of the people and the professional witch hunters. All through Vinegar Tom, we’re kept a bit off balance with scenes from the past that more or less follow logically and are often broken up by theatrically staged songs with a schoolgirl-clad chorus singing with a contemporary pop feel.

As the play opens Shai Warfield-Cross as Alice has offered herself to an attractive stranger in vain hopes that he, a dashing Ryan Lampe, might be the devil and might take her out of the country to London. At the farm of the grumpy Jack, Jay Hemphill and his put-upon wife Margery, Athena Kopulus. Isabelle Gardon appeared as Joan, a dementedly begging older neighbor.

Kaleigh Howard is Alice’s friend, Susan. She’s pregnant again and fears the upcoming pain. The two visit Nicole Labun, Ellen, a warmly sympathetic wise woman who deals in counsel and nostrums. Susan seeks a potion to bring on abortion. It’s a conflicted Susan who’ll later have pangs of conscience and accuse both Alice and Ellen of witchcraft.

Appearing from time to time is the elegantly dressed Madelyn Allender. Her Betty is a bit of a basket case. She’s engaged to a wealthy man that she doesn’t love and she keeps asking Ellen for advice and medications.

In the second act, Ryan Lampe reappears, this time as a professional witch hunting Doctor with Eleanor Sobczyk as, Goody, his eloquently able assistant. Eleanor offers that witch-hunting in Scotland is easier and more successful than in England as the Scots are more liberal about torture, but that there’s good money to be made in both countries.

Farmer Jack seeks the wise woman Ellen for a bit of help with potency and there encounters Alice. In frustration, he attacks her and is delighted to find in aggression an erection. Naturally, he blames Alice for witchcraft. In later scenes the Doctor and his assistant seek to discover the devil’s marks by noting that a needle will not draw blood from the mark. Naturally, there’s room for error and quite a bit of blood, but finally spots are found on old Joan and the wise Ellen. Both are dramatically hanged.

In the finale Ellen and Joan reappear as clowns in top hat and tails. The fancy Betty dressed as a school girl, joins the chorus as a central figure and Churchill’s lines about witches rings out.

Director Rachel Nicole Pierce has assembled an all student creative team and ensemble cast for the show. Miggy Torres composed music for Churchill’s songs. Mathew Waterman directed the music. Allison Demers, Samantha Rahn and Emma Williamson choreographed the songs. Rachel Saylor designed attractive period costumes for the principals and fetching student ensembles for the chorus. Abby Twining’s simple grey thrust stage with menacing trees at the corners, a low table in the center and a couple of stools for the hanging is the effective set. Megan Branham’s lighting focused our attention in the right places and heightened the drama. Overall sound was smoothly manipulated by Macy Kloville.

Throughout acting was strong with vividly drawn portraits and there was a real sense of intimacy in the dramatic scenes broken up by the musical theatre… in the audience’s faces… approach or the choruses. The evening moves quickly and the basic message that women, especially poor women are always at risk is always prominent.

The IU Theatre’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom plays March 29-April 6, 2019 in the Wells-Metz.

You may find this review and an interview with director and composer at wfiu.org/arts.

At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker

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