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Sunday, April 18, 2021

‘The Witches’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company: Uncomfortable Tales of Murder, Incest and Women Domination

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A house sits serenely, the doors in the pitch black. Inside, one sees, a fierce horde of mice turn out to be possessed by a beast, while the visitors trample, kill and sing. This tale of the maddening witches in “The Witches” (1931) is less a story of triumph, however, than of how women were oppressed and subjugated by men in all aspects of life, real and imagined. When we experience such an evil being in our own lives, we are reminded that such images are repeated thousands of times over in the history of mankind. After all, male deities, like those in “The Witches,” regard women only as tools.

Lady Evelyn Mortimer (Beryl Reid) is living on a farm, and up until a farmer from Mooring, Michael (Erwin Schrott), comes to offer her sweet talk in return for a share of her gold, she has no idea she is a figure in the town lore of three witches of power. Once she realizes it, the town is plunged into madness, horror and discontent.

Set to Handel’s delightfully rousing Messiah, Rupert Goold’s brooding production starts off quietly enough, its incongruous rhythms abetted by veteran baritone F. Murray Abraham. This makes for an intimate beginning and gives us good reason to fear its atmosphere of menace. It also eases the tension.

Just as we’re questioning what’s happening, we learn that the next production of the Wicked Witch of the West will be at the Theater for a New Audience. I’m not certain if this has any appeal for us but I assume Goold wants us to be on edge. I’m skeptical.

If we’re not entertained here, it might have something to do with an unoriginal script and an expressionless cast. Abraham gives an impressive performance at first as the farmer who makes a mess of things, but then he seems to be playing all over the place. He’s not the most memorable rendition of Lear, either. Act one’s set-pieces are amazing, especially when the witches come out, but they don’t hold our attention. And when the second act’s hectoring takes us to the House of Commons, we are baffled.

If anything, director Jessica Dickey overplays. In Act two, when Lady Evelyn Mortimer finally finds her inner strength and runs from the city to the countryside, we are suddenly woken up by a moment of sparse exposition before Goold unleashes the New York Philharmonic on us. The result is more than a little jarring, as if Goold did not quite know if the ancient material he was trying to tackle was old or new.

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