At a time when hope for the world is in such short supply — think climate change, wildfires, the pandemic, the possible nuclear madness of Vladimir Putin and the threatened collapse of American democracy — it’s hardly surprising that our thoughts turn now and then to apocalyptic visions and the power of cosmic forces. Like, say, the Devil himself.
That’s the harsh reality behind a brilliant comedy that opened the 2022-23 season Friday, Sept. 16, at Oregon Contemporary Theatre for a two-week run.
Jen Silverman’s Witch, which premiered in 2018, is a reworking and updating of The Witch of Edmonton, a play by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford that opened at London’s Cockpit Theatre in 1621. It tells the supposedly true story of a woman named Elizabeth Sawyer, thought to be a witch who brought pox down on her enemies, a woman — in this contemporary telling — so tough even the Devil himself couldn’t make a deal with her.
Don’t let the idea that this play is four centuries old keep you from seeing it; Silverman’s reworking is as modern as cellphones, and its language is perfectly contemporary. What may have been a history play 400 years ago has been reincarnated as a dark, sharp, contemporary comedy.
In it, we meet Elizabeth Sawyer (Maya Thomas), who lives alone in a hovel on the estate of Sir Arthur Banks (Edward Schoaps), a doddering old man whose estate, legacy and affection are being fought over by his son, Cuddy (Connor French), a wispy semi-closeted gay whose great love in life, to his father’s despair, is Morris dancing, and Frank (Esack Francis Grueskin), the kind of confident high school football jock who loves to torment people like Cuddy. Frank, it turns out, has secretly married Arthur’s maid Winnifred (Annie Craven), who is pregnant with his child, while Cuddy, desperate to please his father, is awkwardly trying to romance her himself to show his manliness.
Into this fraught situation strolls the slick and dapper Scratch, who is not exactly the Devil himself but more an earnest junior sales associate in the soul-buying business. David Arnold’s polished portrayal of this increasingly tormented central character is the glue that gives this deliciously odd show its coherent and commanding center.
Tara Wibrew directs the play with an elegant, straightforward touch on an elegant, straightforward set by Amy Dunn. Nearly continuous live keyboard music, a wonderful touch, is performed on stage by Delos Leo Erickson, who also stands in as a bartender in some scenes.
Witch, as other reviewers have noted, is uneven in places. What that often means is that the reviewer hasn’t been able to come up with simple explanations of its cultural politics. Relax, I want to tell them. This isn’t a contemporary morality play. It’s more like an ancient psalm. Don’t expect everything to make sense.
True to its subject matter, Witch certainly raises ultimate questions: Is there any point in hope? What would you be willing to trade your soul for? The only answers it offers come in the next to the last scene, with a profoundly David Lynchian performance that left me speechless, my skin happily crawling.
This one’s a keeper. Get yourself over to OCT and see it while you can. Just be sure to hang onto your soul.
Witch runs through Oct. 2 at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, 194 W. Broadway. Tickets and more info at OCTheatre.org.