‘The Crucible’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by August 20, 2018

‘The Crucible’ is a powerful and very dark drama based on actual people and events; it was written in 1953 by Marilyn Munroe’s husband, Arthur Miller, when he was still only 37 yrs. old.

The term ‘crucible’, as well as being a chemistry lab dish, is ‘an extremely difficult experience or situation; a severe test or trial’. This play is also a crucible. Superbly written in the Mediaeval Ye Olde English by Arthur Miller, the dialogue alone is a major challenge. Although based in Massachusetts, most of the characters came from the Norfolk area of England.

The performances are about two hundred minutes of powerful, unrelenting – but quality – acting. The storylines are true to the happenings in Salem and are packed with tension and sadness. The play’s demands upon the cast are almost unique in modern theatre.

This play had a four show season in the comfortable, 144-seat Fishtrap Theatre, in the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre. The last show was at 7.00 pm on Saturday 18th August.

 

Scenes: A procession of young girls in white cotton chemise and knickerbockers, weaves through the audience in the foyer, and into the theatre.

The play opens in the woods outside the Puritanical town of Salem, in colonial Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693.

Later we are in the Town Hall where a trial is taking place.

Karen Francis’ and Bronwyn White’s set design is simple – so as not to detract from the action, yet still display the period perfectly. The forest trees are represented by beige muslin stretched over black wings’ flats, with a small vertical ripple in the cloth to give the trees a texture. The furniture is lime washed timber, with rustic tables and chairs.

Stage managers, Monique Kinnest and Bailey Bridgeman Peters, were assisted by backstage helpers Charlotte Roberts and the cast, who silently moved into the dimmest lit stage, and speedily carried out the set changes.

Karen Francis’s sensitive lighting design ranged from a very dim, blue-toned creepy lighting, to a moderately warm candlelight glow. The lighting was enhanced by an ideal haze, which hung around for the whole play without any (noticeable) smoke machine noise or cloud flow. The talented lighting technicians were part of the Mandurah Arts Centre team.

 

       It is night-time when the Reverend Parris (Thomas Hennessy, great) the new minister of Salem enters the woods, looking for his ten-year-old daughter Betty (Rhiannon Francis). He comes across a dozen girls, including one whom he suspects was naked, dancing as though in a trance around Tituba (Tara Elliot, great accent). Tituba is the Parris family slave, who was brought from Barbados where the Rev. Parris had served. This slave had helped her ‘owner’s’ niece, the manipulating, evil Abagail Williams (Abbey McCaughan, made me cringe) brew a love potion for her friends. This potion was lethal and made the girls religious zombies.

       Abigail had a ‘lecherous’ relationship with a local farmer, John Proctor (Paul Hayward, magnificent), who is known for his independence and temper. Abagail was fired by John’s pregnant wife, Elizabeth Proctor (Wendy Kennewell, heart-breaking), and a new maid, the nervous Mary Warren (Aimée Gray, moving) was hired instead.

         Parris found Betty unconscious in the wood and carried her home. On taking care of his daughter, he thought she was either dead or dying, and so called for the elderly Rebecca Nurse (Diana Oliver) who, with her husband Francis (Sam Taylor), are valued community members. When Betty recovers, Abagail – who is after her uncle’s fortune – had the greatest pleasure in telling the Puritans that dozens of citizens are into witchcraft. Parris, who is now the new Prosecutor, totally believes his niece and so locks up dozens of the locals.

         Giles Corey (Nicholas Gaynor) and his wife Martha Corey (Monique Kinnest), who were close friends of Proctor, become convinced that the trials are being used to steal land from the accused and so present evidence to prove Giles’ claim.

       When the Proctor’s new maid, Mary Warren helps John, another two servant girls, Susanna Walcott (Zoë Zsuzsu Sutton) and Mercy Lewis (Teaghan Lowry) who are part of Abigail’s clique, stir up trouble.

       A highly respected member of Salem’s élite, Ann Putnam (Shevonne Scudamore), wife of the avaricious and devious Thomas Putnam (Jake Gardner), one of the richest men in Salem, takes place in a séance with Abagail and a friends, Sarah Good (Amy Elliott) and Mary Walcott (Caitlin Wainwright).

         A young minister, Reverend John Hale (Oliver Clare, very good), who is known for his knowledge of witchcraft, uses his position to investigate. He tries to save as many suspects as possible by getting them to confess before Judge Hathorne (Alex White), a truly devout man but who unfortunately believes every word of Abigail. So Hawthorne is largely responsible for the religious shambles by enforcing his decisions with his young henchmen, Hopkins (Ryan White), rebellious Willard (Angus Young) and his assistant (Lachlan McNeil).

     Eventually Deputy Governor and the chief judge of the court, Judge Danforth (Scott Hansen, superb) is called in, along with his legal clerk, Ezekiel Cheever (Robbie Fieldwick) who is responsible for drawing up the writs and warrants. Danforth enthusiastically convicts anyone brought before him, reinforcing his authority.

       Will common sense ever return to the village?

 

This production company, Stray Cats Theatre, are linked to ADAPT Performance Training, and despite the actors being relatively unknown, the acting performances were outstanding. I would even say the play was the best that I have seen from any Community or Professional group this year. The producer / director, Karen Francis and her production assistant, Bronwyn White, have the cast word-perfect, with tremendous natural chemistry and magnificent body movements. This is a demanding play that only requires one weak performance to kill the play. A loss of drive and stammering when the action becomes aggressive, also results in loss of suspense and credibility.

There were many tragic and heart-breaking performances by this superb cast, but the audience were so stunned that only a light hand applause was rendered, when inside we all felt like giving whoops of congratulations, or joining the Salem rebels.

The eerie music and uncanny soundscape were designed by Karen Francis. The meaningful hymn was cleverly written by Bronwyn White.

Abbey McCaughan, Rhiannon Francis, Diana Oliver, Aimée Oliver, Oliver Clare, and Wendy Kennewell combined their talents, and provided unusual and rare props – including a beautiful antique lap, escritoire. The same team gave us accurate costumes, ideas and concepts, all confirming the year and the religious group. Jodie Mars’ subtle makeup topped off the effects.

The curtain call was a simple nod of the head by each actor, confirming that what we had just experienced was not simply an ‘acting performance’ but a real story.

The impressive photography for the programme and poster was first class work from Kristie Hennessy, aided by Gemma Little.

Karen Francis, with her own financing has taken risks for years, sticking her neck out to present shows from the daring ‘Steaming’, to such popular shows as ‘Mary Poppins’ with a cast of a hundred. Hiring large theatres and giving us the full theatre experience. Such is the admiration of Karen by the local actors that her auditions are sought out. She then takes the selected few to a new height.

Karen has already three new works in the pipeline, ‘Tarzan’ in October, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ in May 2019 and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ in September 2019. The rehearsals are three concentrated months, but the planning is a full year for each show.

If you think that your team are doing a great job, try and see the work of Karen’s community theatre group, which has ALL the qualities of the best professional productions.

I saw this play on a Saturday afternoon; the cast gave every ounce of their energy, and yet after a three and a quarter hour performance, there was a brief break and the whole presentation started again. They must have been dead by the end.