Guest Post: Scott Schulz on Salem Witch Trials Rock Opera

If you live within pouncing distance of San Francisco, you should go to this musical next weekend.
If you don’t live around here, I strongly recommend watching the live stream here at 9:00pm Pacific Time on August 25, 26 or 27.Here’s why:

Abigail The Salem Witch Trials A Rock Opera is a balls-to-the-wall hard rock exploration of the roots of Christian theocracy in America. While last year’s production was a somewhat muddled mess saddled with an awkward venue and abysmal sound system, this year’s production is far more clear and clean. A strong effort has been made to clarify the motivations of the characters, and the multimedia elements have been vastly improved in way that enhances the experience rather than providing a constant distraction. The cast has uniformly embraced the swagger of the music, and so what was once a substantially lopsided confrontation between the Christian Patriarchs of Salem Village and the people that they oppress is now far more equal (at least on a raw, emotional level – the men still have all the political power in the setting). The young Abigail (played this year by CASEY CASTILLE) now stands toe to toe with DANIEL KNOP’s Reverend Parris in a rock and roll confrontation which, in no small way, shaped our nation.

CASTILLE plays Abigail a bit younger than last year’s lead (who I liked as well), and it helps to move the role more towards Abigail’s historical age of eleven at the time. Here Abigail is played as a kind of deranged Angela Chase, and so there’s a strong quality of teen-age rebellion which is both consonant with the music and helps explain part of her motivation to accuse various innocent victims throughout the village of witchcraft. Abigail suddenly finds herself with an unexpected power over people’s lives, and while she may have some idea of what the consequences of that fact might mean, she really does not know what to do with that power, and so she acts out. It’s a pivotal role in the musical, and CASTILLE simply owns it.

The trio of Patriarchal nastiness – Thomas Putnam (RANDE MACHELL), Constable Braybook (SEAN MCCALL) and Reverend Parris (DANIEL KNOP) – all reprise their roles from last year bringing the same Gothic energy to their performances. The tighter script and direction, however, has allowed the female cast to rise to their level. The role of Ann Putnam (played this year by SANDI KING) is wholly impossible: the first time we meet her, she is in the midst of labor, gives birth to a still-born fetus, and must accuse the midwife, Rebecca Nurse (MARI MARJAMAA) of being a witch and killing her child all in one fairly brief song. KING nevertheless brings a physical presence to the role that links her to the scary beautiful conservative women of our time (Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann and, particularly, just because of the physical resemblance, Ann Coulter [shudder]). And so kudos to KING for taking a small, virtually impossible role and making it work.

Aligned against the village patriarchs is a revamped and much more empowered group of women. ALEXIS JANE JENSEN is surprisingly good in another difficult role as Betty Parris, the daughter of Reverend Parris, who joins the young coven surrounding Tituba (NIKKI ARIAS) but then collapses under the weight of guilt at doing so and her fear of hell. ARIAS takes the role of the Indian slave Tituba and transforms the character into a High Priestess whose authority fully matches that of Reverend Parris (I think both characters held the same staff in their first scenes which was a nice touch, if it was intentional). I’m not sure that MARJAMAA plays old enough to sell the role of someone so deaf and senile that she really cannot hear or comprehend the accusations being made against, but that being said, she nails the final duet with CASTILLE.

The venue worked well for this production. Lightrail Studios is a recording studio in a small section of an industrial warehouse, and there is probably even less space in this venue than last year’s. However, the Lightrail space is far more usable, and the sound, while not pristine, is well above average. Last night’s performance was dogged a little bit in the second act when a little electronic chatter crept into the mix – it was only a mild distraction in the quieter sections. The sound mix was once scaled to the verge of feedback like last year, and, in fact, probably went briefly over the edge even more often, but the monitors were generally so clean that it was far less painfully and noticeable when it did happen. Furthermore, the ambient sound design in the film soundtrack came across extremely well effectively adding to the ambiance of the production.

The film accompanying the production was edited far better than last year. Now, in general, when the focus was meant to be on the stage, the screen was fairly static and vice versa. The scene when Abigail rips out pages from a Bible in her frustration with Christianity was particularly effective.

The book is, I believe, much clearer and coherent than last year (but that impression may just be because it was fairly impossible to comprehend the lyrics last year). There is satisfying dichotomy between the incipient nature religion of proto-coven led by Tituba and the grim patriarchal Christianity under Reverend Parris. There were moments that I even felt a little pandered to as a Pagan by the girls’ rituals (ooh, they’re drawing a PENTAGRAM in the DIRT!), but, you know what, that never happens to us, and it was nice to be pandered to for once. While there is something a bit iffy about the real witches accusing innocents of witchcraft for the political and monetary benefit of the village’s male Christian elite, at least now we can plausibly see how that might have come about. I’m fairly sure that the historical witch trials did not come about in precisely this way, this play is a excellent exploration of the issues for our time. Watching this show excited me as a Pagan, and made me proud once more of being around this kind of artistic community in the Bay Area.

Really you should go while you have the chance.

Quibbles:

  • The Giles Corey (JAY CRAWFORD) role still is not working. I can sympathize with why the production would want to keep a character whose only response to repeated calls for confession while being crushed to death by rocks was, “More weight.” But this year instead of being crushed by comfy pillows, he’s being crushed by the three mail-bags of injustice.
  • The cast should really try scrying using egg whites in water sometime. They would quickly realize that doing so is virtually impossible in a white bowl. A good black cast-iron pot would be much more authentic for the scene.
  • Okay: feathers are not the universal symbol of authentic Native American spirituality. And I’m really not sure why you’re putting them on Ann Putnam’s dead baby. Buy a copy of American Mystic, watch it, absorb it, and do something else.
  • You could probably incorporate even more of the lyrics as super-titles in the film. It worked well for Rebecca Nurse’s “I will not admit what I am not”. I know with the pre-film, the overture and the play itself, you’re already telling the story, and then telling the story and then telling the story. But even more judicious excerpts from the book going up on the screen during the songs would help.
  • Abigail does a lot of burying and unburying in the film. Historically, we don’t really know what happened to her. The show reached towards the present with the costumes for the final song. (Apparently in heaven we all wear prom dresses.) But, I might frame the whole thing instead a with modern Abigail wearing, say, a Catholic schoolgirl’s uniform discovering the 1692′s Abigail’s Book of Shadows in the dirt at the beginning and ending with the duet with Rebecca Nurse with Abigail in the same costume.
  • I wouldn’t go the full Marat/Sade, but there might be something to treating the audience like the villagers of 1692. Perhaps, greeters in pilgrim garb, hailing us as “Brother” and “Sister” as we take our seats?

Reprinted with permission from The Juggler.


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