At the beginning of Witch, a funny and insightful play by Jen Silverman now in its west coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, the titular character (Maura Tierney) addresses the audience, posing a bit of a warning. She points out that if you are a person who still has hope that the state of the world can get better, you do not need the story that is to follow. Directed by Marti Lyons, hope, or lack thereof, is a central theme of this clever piece, which examines the value of human souls in a world where optimism for the future is increasingly scarce.
Inspired by The Witch of Edmonton, an English Jacobean play by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, and John Ford, the story of Witch follows Tierney’s character, Elizabeth Sawyer. You see, Elizabeth is not actually a witch—not even remotely so. She is merely an outcast, a woman who lives in solitude and has become a sort of bogeyman for her fellow villagers, an easy scapegoat whenever anything goes wrong. The circumstances that led to her ostracization are eventually revealed, and paint a poignant parallel with the other major storyline in the play, which involves the local royal family. The widowed Sir Arthur (Brian George) is facing a dilemma regarding whom he should choose as his heir. His only son, Cuddy (Will Von Vogt) is fooling no one with his attempts to appear heterosexual, and seems unlikely to ever produce another successor. Enter Frank (Ruy Iskandar), a cocky young man who was plucked from the depths of poverty by Sir Arthur and has spent the last five years enjoying all the perks of high society life as a sort of adopted son.
The lives of the people of Edmonton are turned upside down when the Devil (Evan Jonigkeit) pays them a visit, prepared to grant any wish their heart desires for one simple price—their soul. Cuddy quickly agrees—he would like Frank to be killed. Frank also accepts the offer—he would like to secure his place as Sir Arthur’s heir. But when the Devil visits Elizabeth, expecting her to be an eager customer given the gossip surrounding her, he gets much more than he bargained for. Self-aware with a finely-tuned bullshit detector, Elizabeth is dismayed by the Devil’s initial suggestions for potential punishments for a target of her choosing, fairly tame revenge plots that involve inflicting discomfort rather than ruin. She demands he offer her the same deal he’d offer a man, and he quickly realizes her soul will not be easily bought.
Everything about Silverman’s writing is sharp and layered, injecting a modern-day feminism into a story that could seem dated or simplistic in less skilled hands. But instead, this play could not have come at a better time. As Americans, we are currently facing a world that is in an alarming state of disarray. Between climate change, human rights violations, and horrifying mass shootings becoming practically a part of daily life, it is sometimes hard to keep your chin up, to hold out hope for a better future when humanity seems to have so thoroughly decimated its present. The chance for Elizabeth to be a hopeful or optimistic person passed many years ago. Society has shunned her, abused her, cast her out at every turn—she owes it nothing. The Devil is the only kindred spirit she has encountered in many years, and the unexpected, unconventional relationship they develop is deeply affecting to watch. She does not have much to learn—although we do not discover the price she will set for her soul for a while, it becomes quite clear she has known it all along. But she teaches this incarnation of the Devil, who until now has spent his existence as a junior-level traveling salesman, quite a bit about the true meaning of his “work.”
Lyons’s direction features perhaps the most creative use of the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, the Geffen’s smaller space, to date. Scenes with Elizabeth unfold on the ground level, inches away from the audience and very accessible, while the stage above extends for the scenes with the royal family, forcing you to quite literally look up to gaze upon them, emphasizing their higher status. While the costumes (Danae Iris McQueen) are period, the dialogue is purely modern, serving as a reminder that give or take a few details, the heart of this fable is rather timeless. The action clocks in at a tight 95 minutes that fly by so quickly it is a surprise when you realize the story has already reached its end.
Tierney is giving a quietly great performance as Elizabeth, so unwavering in her stoicism that when she does break for one blink-and-you-miss-it show of emotion, it is all the more powerful. Her scenes with Jonigkeit are a real treat, with his charismatic character playing foil to her sullen and matter-of-fact one. The Devil is so frequently depicted in media, and this iteration is about as human as a shockingly old being with many physical forms can be. He is flawed, he is learning, and when Jonigkeit delivers his final monologue, reflecting on the ways Elizabeth changed him, it is heartbreaking and full of universal truths.
The soapy drama of the royals provides much of the comedy in the piece, combining classic cliches with unexpected depth to great effect. George brings a lot to the role of Sir Arthur, a character who could easily amount to an unsympathetic cardboard cutout. But his genuine anguish over his late wife and dilemma with his son catches you by surprise. Iskandar and Von Vogt are hilarious together, infusing their petty rivalry with nuance and even sexual tension. Rounding out the cast is Vella Lovell as Winnifred, Frank’s secret wife who has been working as a maid in the castle, pretending not to know him while he tries to secure the inheritance. She is constantly cleaning up the remnants of comically large feasts with increasing irritation, losing patience with Frank and with her situation. The only time the action falters is during an extended, abstract dance sequence towards the end, which while well-intentioned is too incongruous with the style and tone of the rest of the play to quite land.
Every character in Witch is struggling with a form of unhappiness, but one of the questions Silverman is so smartly posing is, how do we fix widespread corruption and sadness? Does it begin on a small level, with a wish to make one’s own life better in some quantifiable way, or does the root of the problem call for a much more dramatic solution? What is left to do when venom runs too deep in the veins of the world to stop its spread? What is the point of a single human soul when the whole world is rotting anyway? In adapting a play nearly 400 years old, Silverman has managed to tap beautifully into our current zeitgeist, asking all of the right questions. And this stellar production, chock full of strong performances, manages to deliver a startlingly somber message with levity and emotional authenticity.
Witch runs at the Geffen Playhouse through September 29th. The running time is 95 minutes, no intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here.