Theater note: 17th-century witch hunts, eerily resonant today

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What a breath of fresh air! No, I’m not talking about Sarah Palin. I’m talking about Frank Theatre’s production of Vinegar Tom, which tackles Caryl Churchhill’s play about Europe’s 17th-century witch hunts with such gusto that by the end, you’ll be holding up your fist demanding justice.

Director Wendy Knox’s achievement in this production is highlighting the strong connection between the story and the political message: that we are wrong to disregard evidence and due process, that we can’t arbitrarily blame people for things that have gone wrong just because there is no other solution.

When Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, he was using the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for McCarthyism and the frenzied blacklists of artists and writers. Vinegar Tom is similar in theme, but Churchhill’s style is quite different. Vinegar Tom offers a feminist take on its material, pointing to the sexism of witch hunts as well as the fear that makes groups of people turn from ordered societies to vigilante hordes.

Vinegar Tom, a play written by Caryl Churchhill and directed by Wendy Knox. Presented by Frank Theatre through October 5 at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Ave. N.E., Minneapolis. For tickets ($20-$25) and information, see ritztheaterfoundation.org.


Alice, the lead character, is played by Emily Gunyou Halaas with a sensual practicality. Alice feels no shame in sleeping with men she meets in the woods, but knows she could improve her situation if one of them were to take her away. She calmly brings her friend Susan (a twittery Katrina Hawley) to the Cunning Woman (Lori Neal) to get some herbs for her unwanted pregnancy, and she uses her strength and wit to ward off the advances of her neighbor.

Interspersed amid the story line are songs delivered in direct address to the audience. Churchhill’s original script does contain songs, but the melodies in this production were composed by seven separate composers who were asked by Knox to compose original music to replace the original score, which Knox calls “whiny 70’s chick music.”


The melodies in this production were composed by seven separate composers who were asked by director Wendy Knox to compose original music to replace the original score, which Knox calls “whiny 70’s chick music.”


The songs—composed by Ruth MacKenzie, Annie Enneking, Martha Hart, Helen Glavin, George Maurer, Pablo, and Willie Murphy—are, for the most part, an enormous success. At first I was jarred by the music. I felt completely taken out of the story by the modern music and dress, and it didn’t seem to fit. But of course that was the intention. The songs serve to connect the story to the modern day. My favorite song is “If You Float” (music by George Maurer), which begins as a song about how to tell if a person is a witch. The title comes from the practice of throwing women in the water—women who floated were judged to be witches. (Those who didn’t float simply drowned.) But the song goes on. “If you have breasts, you’re a witch,” the women
cheerfully sing. They list all the groups of people lumped into the category of “witches”: communists, blacks, Jews, anarchists.

Knox manages, by directing a period play about 17th-century Europe, to slam the recent, disturbing, trend of disregarding civil liberties in America. Yes, we really do live in a country where you can face years in prison because of your political beliefs, where you can be tortured without being charged, where freedom of speech is thrown out the window for the sake of security.

I digress…but I can’t help it. This play is intensely political. It demands not just an aesthetic response but a political response as well. Artistically, the play is solid. The performances are all very well done (with the exception of one bad singer), and are, for the most part, appropriately understated. The set, designed by Andrea Heilman, is very simple, but effective.

This is a play that makes you furious. If you don’t leave this play wondering what you can do to work for justice, I’ll eat my witch hat.

Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.

Also in the Daily Planet, read Sheila Regan on Frank Theatre’s production of Mr. Puntilla and His Hired Man Matti (March 2008).