Like a blank verse precursor to John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick, the Jacobean play The Witch of Edmonton, now playing at Theatre @ St. Clement’s, details the sad, and sometimes comic, events that take place when the devil finds his way among the citizenry of the town of Edmonton. The work, a collaboration of Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley, is so rarely staged that any opportunity to see it is welcome, and while director Jesse Berger’s production is unevenly performed, there is much to savor in this latest offering from the Red Bull Theater.
Most notable is the work of Charlayne Woodard who plays Elizabeth Sawyer, a poor woman who is ridiculed and despised by her neighbors for her penury and mere presence in the community. Woodard imbues the woman — called a witch by those around her — with a profound dignity and a deeply touching desperation. Additionally, her ability to communicate the character’s frightening anger makes it unsurprising that Elizabeth’s curses toward her chief tormentor, Old Banks (a terrifically understated Andre De Shields) allow her to summon the Devil in the form of a black Dog (Derek Smith).
Once Elizabeth has promised her soul to the creature, which Smith brings to life with an amazing physicality, he agrees to exact a revenge on Banks by going after the man’s dimwitted, but good-hearted, son (brought to life with smile-inducing simplicity by Adam Green). Elizabeth’s story intersects with the play’s other main plotline, which concerns a hasty set of marital machinations entered into by a young man named Frank (Justin Blanchard).
Frank has had to quickly marry Winifred (Miriam Silverman), who, like her new husband, works for Sir Arthur Clarington (a delightfully oily Christopher Innvar), because Frank believes that she is carrying his child. His father (Christopher McCann in a curiously stilted turn), however, has other plans for his son, and Frank, to please the older man, marries a second time, to Susan (played awkwardly by Christina Pumariega), a young woman with a significant dowry.
When Frank finds he doesn’t have the constitution to handle the two marriages, the Dog conveniently enters the scene. He spurs Frank to violence because it will, indirectly, help Elizabeth in obtaining her revenge. It’s a convoluted twist that, in actuality, makes a certain amount of sense given the lucidity of Berger’s production, which unfolds briskly on Anika Lupes’ unique set that bookends the playing area — a wooden planked ‘O’ that surrounds and earth-filled pit — with the framework of a house and two towers.
Not only does Berger ensure that theatergoers are able to rapidly grasp the intricacies of the relationships between the characters, and the varying social classes from which they come, he also handles many of the flights of fancy in the script with aplomb, including several apparitions and the bizarre appearance of a mad woman (a grand cameo turn by Everett Quinton).
Given Berger’s surehandededness with an unwieldy text, it’s unfortunate that he has not managed to elicit more satisfying performances from many of the actors featured in the marriage-plot sequences. On the plus side, Sam Tsoutsouvas, playing Susan’s father, brings the character to life with both good-ole-boy panache and later volcanic rage. Additionally, while Blanchard and Silverman, playing the central couple, never spark thoroughly, they do speak the verse with a grand sense of musicality and share a terrific chemistry.