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PlayMakers Repertory Company Puts the Spark Back into Arthur Miller’s The Crucible

PlayMakers Repertory Company mainstay Jeffrey Blair Cornell (center) stars as Deputy Governor and Salem Witch Trials chief judge Thomas Danforth in <em>The Crucible</em> (photo by Jon Gardiner)

PlayMakers Repertory Company mainstay Jeffrey Blair Cornell (center) stars as Deputy Governor and Salem Witch Trials chief judge Thomas Danforth in The Crucible (photo by Jon Gardiner)

crucible. A ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures.

PlayMakers Repertory Company celebrates the 40th anniversary of its professional residence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a production of The Crucible — last produced by the UNC’s professional-theater-in-residence in 1976 — with a bold re-interpretation at the Paul Green Theatre in UNC’s Center for Dramatic Art.

How can Arthur Miller’s 1953 allegorical masterpiece, which already shifts our attention between two topics: The Red Scare of the 1950s and the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s, be re-interpreted? It’s not like Shakespeare, with your post-apocalyptic war of the roses (Bare Theatre’s 2016 interpretation of Henry VI: The War of the Roses), your 1960s office comedy (Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern’s 2016 adaptation of Maccountant), or your John Hughes-inspired high school romcom (William Peace Theatre’s 2016 version of Twelfth Night). Those stories are timeless. The constant appearance of the Bard in our theatrical canon demands that we reimagine him; one could scarcely sit through yet another production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream without something new to see.

So, does The Crucible warrant reinterpretation? Probably not.

Is it even possible? Highly unlikely.

That is what I firmly believed before seeing PlayMakers Rep guest director Desdemona Chiang’s interpretation last weekend. Although I’m not 100 percent convinced that reinterpretation is warranted, I always prefer innovation over cliché; and Chiang’s version of The Crucible is certainly innovative and demands attention.

Shanelle Nicole Leonard (center) stars as Tituba, the Rev. Parris' slave from Barbados, who was accused of witchcraft, "confessed," and went mad in prison (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Shanelle Nicole Leonard (center) stars as Tituba, the Rev. Parris’ slave from Barbados, who was accused of witchcraft, “confessed,” and went mad in prison (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Without giving too much away, know that this version finds a way of transporting Arthur Miller’s characters (literally? figuratively?) into the contemporary world, as they play progresses. This raises more questions than it answers, which is something that is desperately needed in theater, where answers abound.

Is The Crucible still about The Red Scare? Is it related to the Salem Witch Trials anymore? Are the obvious themes of hysteria and reputation still there?

Yes and no.

When you change the material from which the crucible itself is made — from a 17th century wood burning stove to a sleek 21st century concrete-and-iron prison complex — you change the chemical makeup of the characters and, as a result, the conflict. Like the concept or not, this version demands that we look again. This Crucible is less about society’s ills and more about the individual, moving from “town gone mad” to the internal battle between judgment and forgiveness.

Narelle Sissons’ scenic design clarifies the where-and-when, whether the intention is literal or figurative. Much to-do has been made about this production’s in-the-round staging. While it is not particularly revolutionary, it does help to trap the characters, and suggests observation and external judgment. The jarring transition between the old and the new crucible is this version’s most memorable moment.

Grier Coleman’s costume designs are a blend of period and contemporary fashions. Special attention is paid to women’s headdresses, and the eventual removal of that protective covering is a powerful image. The soundscape of Eric Alexander Collins is immersive, detailed and, most importantly, subtle.

Movement consultant Tracey Bersley and fight coordinator Benjamin Curns support director Desdemona Chiang’s staging with some electric bursts of physical conflict like bolts of lightning in the vast meadow of playwright Arthur Miller’s lengthier scenes.

Josh Epstein’s lighting is strong and specific, especially given the constraints of in-the-round staging and the obscuring of part of the grid during Act One. The use of fluorescents enhances the contemporary setting.

Ariel Shafir and Sarita Ocón star as John and Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible -- a married couple ho were falsely accused of practicing witchcraft and went to the gallows (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Ariel Shafir and Sarita Ocón star as John and Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible — a married couple ho were falsely accused of practicing witchcraft and went to the gallows (photo by Jon Gardiner)

There are no weak links in this cast. Exceptional notice is earned by Allison Altman for her beautifully understated and mature Abigail Williams, Christine Mirzayan’s desperately conflicted Mary Warren, Kathryn Hunter-Williams for her warm but hard-as-nails Rebecca Nurse, Ray Dooley’s distressed but darkly humorous Giles Corey, Jeffrey Blair Cornell’s tyrannical and frighteningly apropos Deputy Governor Danforth, and Jim Moscater’s dynamic and uniquely amusing Reverend Samuel Parris.

Ariel Shafir delivers a tour-de-force portrayal of John Proctor — so commonly played as a noble, Christlike figure — as a stubborn, charming Everyman who succumbs to the harsh reality of human injustice. Shafir gives us something unheard of — a relatable, vulnerable John Proctor.

Likewise, Sarita Ocón’s Elizabeth Proctor avoids the overused “stand-by-your-man” posturing, opting instead for a restrained respect for Proctor’s plight, allowing him to find his own way as an equal partner.

PlayMakers‘ new Crucible asks as many questions of its audience as of its characters. Though the concept’s intention is not airtight, it need not be. I encourage you to see this production and uncover some answers of your own. With its superior cast, compelling design, and thought-provoking interpretation, Desdemona Chiang has put the spark back into this classic drama.

This show is lands in the PG-13 territory for its intensely emotional scenes.

The Salem Witchcraft Trials unleashed a two-year tidal wave of hysteria in which 20 of the more than 200 people accused of practicing witchcraft were executed (photo by Jon Gardiner)

The Salem Witchcraft Trials unleashed a two-year tidal wave of hysteria in which 20 of the more than 200 people accused of practicing witchcraft were executed (photo by Jon Gardiner)

SECOND OPINION: Oct. 24th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article110148657.html and Sept. 30th mini-preview: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article104977596.html. Oct. 19th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-crucible/Event?oid=5077369; Oct. 18th Chapel Hill, NC Chapelboro.com/WCHL interview with director Desdemona Chiang and actress Sarita Ocón, conducted by Aaron Keck: http://chapelboro.com/news/arts/crucible-opens-at-playmakers; Oct. 13th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/timeless-the-crucible-set-in-the-round/article_9c0ab804-90ba-11e6-8e90-97b086a29382.html (Note: You must subscribe to read this article); and Oct. 6th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) preview by Nic Rardin: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2016/10/playmakers-crucible-1006. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Oct. 19th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/10/the-crucible-at-prc-is-arthur-millers-cautionary-tale-about-the-salem-witch-trials-rush-to-judgment/.)

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents THE CRUCIBLE at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25-29, 2 p.m. Oct. 30, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 1-4, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 6 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $15 and up ($10 UNC students and $12 other college students), with discounts for UNC faculty and staff and U.S. military personnel, except $15 (general admission) Tuesday Community Night performances.

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or https://tickets.playmakersrep.org/.

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), prcgroups@unc.edu, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.

SHOW: http://playmakersrep.org/show/the-crucible/.

PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.

PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.

VENUE: http://playmakersrep.org/aboutus/paulgreen.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo.

NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.

NOTE 2: There will be an All-Access Performance, with sign-language interpretation and audio description by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 25th.

NOTE 3: There will be FREE post-show discussions with members of the cast and creative team following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30th, performances.

NOTE 4: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 29th (for more information, click here).

OTHER LINKS:

The Crucible (1953 drama): http://www.ibiblio.org/miller/works.html (Arthur Miller Society page), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/the-crucible-2847 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crucible (Wikipedia).

The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Study Guide: http://www.us.penguingroup.com/static/pdf/teachersguides/crucible.pdf (Penguin Group).

Arthur Miller (American dramatist, screenwriter, and essayist, 1915-2005): http://www.ibiblio.org/miller/ (Arthur Miller Society), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/arthur-miller-4316 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0007186/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Miller (Wikipedia).

Desdemona Chiang (Seattle/San Francisco-based PRC guest director): http://www.desdemona.org/blog/ (official website), http://playmakersrep.org/artists/desdemona-chiang/ (PRC bio), https://www.facebook.com/deschiang (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/deschiang (Twitter page).

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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Lead Story, Reviews