Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Judith & Vinegar Tom

Well-done political theatre can be invigorating, inspiring, and infuriating in the best way. Not-so-well-done political theatre, however, can be pretty tedious, as shown by the pair of one acts now at PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Company).

Nesba Crenshaw, Tara Giordano
in Vinegar Tom
Photo: Stan Barouh
Howard Barker's three-hander Judith presents the night that Judith, "a widow of Israel," meets with Holofernes, "a General of Assyria" and eventually cuts off his head. But first they talk, a lot: the cost of killing to both victim and murderer; the strange cravings of sex; the complex reality of power. Under the conversation throbs (or should throb) desire, not only for sex per se, but to remember how to feel.

In the PTP production, words win and ideas and desire lose, due to the directing (Richard Romagnoli), casting, and acting. The presentation is monochromatic, from the dark costuming to the deadpan pontificating. The sexual tension that could make the thing work is nowhere to be found. (Also, just to pick a nit, if you're carrying someone's head, it's heavy. It has heft. In Judith, it's carried like the rolled-up sheet it obviously is.)

Vinegar Tom, by Caryl Churchill, is more successful, but still a disappointment. Reminiscent of The Crucible (could any play about witches not be?), Vinegar Tom makes explicit everything that Arthur Miller left as subtext--and then some. Much of its honesty is wonderful: these women are sexual and strong and real. Their vivid characters provide a stark contrast to the restrictions that bind them. In the 18th century, they control little but their own souls, and even those seem up for grabs.

Although things have improved greatly for many women, the parallels to today are obvious and painful. It's annoying when the show spells them out via a trio of female singers and a faux-vaudeville coda. Churchill doesn't trust her audience, but it's hard to imagine that (even in the 1970s, when the play was written) people need singing Cliff Notes to get the point.

Vinegar Tom is helped immensely by its excellent cast, in particular Tara Giordano and Lucy Faust. It is smoothly directed by Cheryl Christensen, and the scenery (Hallie Zieselman), lighting (Mark Evancho), and costumes (Annie Ulrich) are appropriately moody.

It is interesting, and generous, that PTP chose to present these plays together. Many theatres would have presented the 85-minute Vinegar Tom as an evening to itself. The combination allows the plays to reflect back and forth about women's power, sexuality, and lack of freedom through the ages. If Judith  had had more dimension and Vinegar Tom had stopped announcing its meaning, this could have been a tremendously exciting evening.

(press tickets; 4th row)

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