Los Angeles Review - "Witch" at the Geffen Playhouse

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  • Jill Weinlein, Chief Los Angeles Critic

WITCH was inspired by the 1658 printed edition of The Witch of Edmonton by three playwrights William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford. Playwright Jen Silverman was obsessed with this play and turned it into a tragicomedy about six distinctive characters who hope that their life will get better.

Piercing eyes look out to the audience throughout the 95 minute show in the 138-seat Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre inside the Geffen Playhouse. At times lighting director Keith Parham has one of the eye’s eerily glow in light blue.

Her “Witch” named Elizabeth Sawyer (Maura Tierney, Golden Globe Winner) is the most reviled woman in her village, inciting people to stare and whisper about her in their midst.

Sir Arthur’s son Cuddy (Will Von Vogt) who also lives in the village of Edmonton, hopes his father will accept him for who he is, rather than seek out a more testosterone Frank Thorney (Ruy Iskandar) to carry on the family name. Director Marti Lyons had to recast her first Cuddy (Simon Helberg -Big Bang Theory) when he dropped out, however Geffen patrons will recognize Von Vogt from his role of Jordan Berman in last year’s play “Significant Other.” He has a vulnerability that makes the audience root for him.

Cuddy easily gives his soul to Scratch (Evan Jonigkeit) who works as the devil, for his darkest wish to come true.

The villain in the play is not only Scratch, but also the tall, dark and handsome Frank. His character is similar to Gaston in the Beauty and the Beast. He should be the most reviled person in the village, not Elizabeth.

There are multiple plots that are intertwined, however I enjoyed watching Jonigkeit and Tierney together. Even though Scratch has the power to destroy, he weakens after meeting Elizabeth, and loses his desire to hustle and take souls away. Everyone miscalculates Elizabeth, yet when she opens up and tells Scratch the true story of her life, we sympathize with her even more. The only thing she has left in life is her soul, and she is not willing to give it away. This intrigues Scratch and chemistry develops. Candlelight and shadows enhances their scenes. Sound designer Cricket S. Myers was clever during the rain scene with sounds of drops dripping in a pan, making it so realistic.

The play hints at feminism as Scratch admits his sales pitch is different for men, than women. Elizabeth insists Scratch gives her the male version. In doing so, he later admits to Elizabeth how he "used to appear as a woman, but he didn’t like the way people looked at him.”

Spending all of his time learning about Elizabeth, Scratch forgets to turn in his paperwork of the souls he has collected and tragedy occurs.

Winnifred (Vella Lovell) as a hard working servant, believes she has no hope left in life, so she bargains with Scratch to give him her soul and in return wishes to be buried next to her husband.

One of the best things about this play, besides the acting, is the creative set by Dane Laffrey. It’s two level detailed stage has destitute Elizabeth living on a dirt floor, and above Sir Arthur’s magnificent dining room mechanically comes out towards the audience. Decorated as Sir Arthur’s “Last Supper,” there is a long banquet table adorned with candles, and some of the most lavish food and red goblets for drinks. While Sir Arthur and Frank discuss the future, Winnifred delivers and takes away the exquisite offerings, often with a huff and facial expressions that tells their own silent story.

On the back wall is a portrait of Sir Arthur’s deceased wife with those piercing eyes looking into the souls of the characters onstage and the audience.

In the line “women are silent, we have to imagine a new world. If they (women) are smart they will take what there is and move on,” emphasizing women’s roles in society back then and still today.

Silverman’s message in the Playbill includes how we need to ask ourselves if we can fix the system from within or if the only way to move forward is just to burn it all down. Within the last three years, she questions if we are leading ourselves to a point where the systems themselves can’t be salvaged. Writing this play has helped her process these huge questions. She thinks the play would be different, if it was a different moment in time.

WITCH leaves the audience wondering how much a soul is worth, when hope is hard to come by today.

Previews: Tuesday, August 20 – Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Opening Night: Thursday, August 29, 2019

Closing Night: Sunday, September 29, 2019

Tickets currently priced at $30.00 - $120.00. Available in person at the Geffen Playhouse box office, by phone at 310.208.5454 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.org. Fees may apply. Rush tickets for each day’s performance are made available to the general public 30 minutes before showtime at the box office. $35.00 General / $10.00 Student.