Breaking point: (l-r) Rafferty and Holm
in The Crucible.
Arthur Miller, directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill
Capital Repertory Theater, through May 26
In Act III of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, performed
ably by Capital Repertory Company, Judge Danforth, who already
has condemned many to death as “witches” in Salem, says, “A
person is either with this court or he must be counted against
it, there be no road between.”
Sound familiar? After the attacks on Sept. 11, President Bush
said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
No, Bush isn’t copping his lines from this nightmarish 1950s
morality play—although it might often seem so. Rather, Arthur
Miller knew that the world over, abusers of power are the
same. He knew this because he had been named before the House
Committee on Un-American Activities,where many prominent Americans
were accused of being Communists.
Crucible, Miller’s response to the Red Scare of the 1950s,
draws a painfully accurate portrait of power gone horribly
awry. In 1692, the residents of Salem, Mass., entered a collective
hysteria that, in Europe, already was responsible for the
torture and deaths of thousands of people—mostly women—accused
of witchcraft. In The Crucible, Abigail Williams (Shannon
Rafferty) is the young ringleader who implicates John Proctor
(Jeremy Holm) and his wife Elizabeth (Kim Stauffer), drawing
them onto the destructively voyeuristic stage of the court.
If you’ve never seen The Crucible, this production
is a good introduction. The intimacy of a local production—with
people in the audience attending to support cast members from
work or school—startles one into thinking that the horrible
scenes in Salem were played out in just such settings, where
everyone knew everyone else.
Another critic has written that The Crucible—because
it is so powerfully dramatic—“is almost actor-proof.” However,
there are flaws here: Sometimes actors rely on flighty hand
gestures for emphasis that seem more court-of-Montel-Williams
than Puritan Massachusetts. Sometimes volume substitutes for
emotive depth, and the actors playing the Putnams show that
even The Crucible isn’t immune from woodenness.
Mostly, the main characters are pulled off with aplomb: Rafferty
as Abigail brings a physicality and menace that counterbalances
the quiet poise of Stauffer’s Elizabeth and Rebecca Nurse
(played with grace by Carol Charniga), and Marjorie Johnson
relishes the melodrama of her Tituba, the Barbadian slave
of Rev. Parris.
Jeremy Holm’s swagger suggests Proctor as Miller imagined
him: a hotheaded individualist. His “lechery” with Abigail
is a forgivable carnal sin. A weakness of Miller’s play is
his failure to see the girls as little but manipulative; and
costuming in this production emphasizes their modernity. Rather
than the traditional Puritan bonnets and collars, leather
boots and corsets over shirts define these girls as mature.
However, we know that the real Abigail Williams was
around 11 or 12 years old (and her cousin, Betty, was 9)—far
from the 18-year-old strumpet Miller imagined. The historical
record shows Proctor eager to whip and see Mary Warren hung.
It is sobering to realize that Miller’s portrayal actually
toned down the goings-on in Salem.
In Abu Ghirab, and in Guantanamo, our officials again condone
torture. Arthur Miller noted as recently as 2003—the playwright
died in 2005—that “this threat from abroad is a very useful
way of holding onto power. We’ve got it now with Bush and
Iraqis.” Unfortunately, Miller’s insights into power are as
resonant in 2007 as they were in 1953.
Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Burt Shevelove and
Larry Gelbart, directed and choreographed by Tralen Doler
Cohoes Music Hall, through May 13
Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is comic
gold. Featuring Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics, this
1962 musical is a multiple-Tony-winning (interestingly, though,
not for Sondheim) crowd-pleaser. It’s frequently produced
in high schools and community theaters, and is always a hit
with professional theaters. The hysterical 1996 Broadway revival
starred Nathan Lane as the conniving slave Pseudolus, and
one of my prized theatrical experiences was seeing Lane’s
Tony Award-winning performance; the musical’s inherent hilarity
Inspired by the contrived comedies of Roman playwright Plautus,
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum could
be subtitled The Complete Works of Plautus, Abridged.
Its classical unity (all the events take place on one clear
Roman day in and out of the three doors of one upper-class
Roman street), mistaken identities (Pseudolous pretends to
be the brothel owner Lycus, Lycus pretends to be a leper,
Hysterium the head slave pretends to be the virginal ingénue
Philia, etc), character types (Miles Gloriosus, “braggart
soldier”), and its bawdiness (lust is good) are examples from
the Plautus primer.
But A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’s
songs are what make the musical soar, from the perfect opening
number, “Comedy Tonight” (added on at the last minute for
the Broadway opening when the show bombed on its out-of-town
tryouts) whose cleverness twinkles, to the sweet ballad “Lovely”
shared between the male ingénue Hero and female ingénue Philia
(and reprised in Act Two between the disguised-as-Philia Hysterium
and Pseudolus to totally different effect), to the infectious
“Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” (which is impossible not
to sing while leaving the theater, or for days afterwards).
Sondheim’s music and lyrics are perfectly suited to the material
C-R Productions’ A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the
Forum at Cohoes Music Hall is a well-starched version
of this masterpiece, getting some of the laughs in the show.
However, watching people onstage count out dance steps made
me feel like I was watching a clock with only a minute hand.
While I’ve seen good work at Cohoes Music Hall in the past,
this production of this master-work seemed entirely self-
congratulatory, sort of a bad-middle-school-musical-meets-outsized-ego,
without a director to check the boundaries. While the Proteans
(Augie Abatecola, Anthony Ong, Alex Turpin) and the Courtesans
(Nicole Brammer, Jennifer Davis, Regina Gatti, Kako Kitano,
Courtney Romano, Jennifer Stone) exhibited the high energy,
focus, and timing needed, the leads seemed to be indulging
themselves, mugging when they weren’t counting. Any production
of A Funny Thing that fails to go beyond crotch staring,
boob grabbing, nipple pinching, and thigh spreading is a production
with an unimaginative director. And any director who lets
his Pseudolus simulate getting a rim job from his Hysterium,
as happens in Cohoes Music Hall’s production, is a director
who has failed to reign in the ego of his “star.”