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Breaking point: (l-r) Rafferty and Holm in The Crucible.

Witch Hunts Forever

By Meisha Rosenberg

The Crucible

By 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.

The 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.

Something Appalling

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, directed and choreographed by Tralen Doler

Cohoes Music Hall, through May 13

A 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 never misses.

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 at hand.

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.”

—James Yeara


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