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A CurtainUp Review
Judith-Vinegar Tom, a Double Feature
By Charles Wright

Where have the witches gone? / Who are the witches now?
— "Lament for the Witches" by Caryl Churchill (set to music by Carol Christensen) in Vinegar Tom
The Potomac Theatre Project, which now styles itself PTP/NYC, is known for presenting works by Howard Barker and Caryl Churchill. Currently, this estimable company is offering a double bill consisting of Judith: A Parting from the Body, a Barker one-act from 1992, and Vinegar Tom, Churchill's 1976 play with songs. In some ways, these two pieces are strikingly different, though both are marked by an earnestness familiar in the English avant-garde of the 1970s, when the two writers came to prominence.

Judith is Barker's reimagining of the deuterocanonical tale of a widow (Pamela J. Grey) who, on the eve of battle, plies Holofernes (Alex Draper), the Assyrian general, with wine and severs his head. Judith's bravery protects her people, the Israelites, from defeat and preserves the Temple from desecration.

The Judith of scripture is a pious figure who pleads with her Deity to "cause thy whole nation and every tribe to know and understand that thou art God, the God of all power and might, and that there is no other who protects the people of Israel but thou alone!" (Judith IX: 14, Revised Standard Version) Barker removes God, religion, and even tribalism from the Judith-Holofernes equation, making this a story of self-centered antagonists engaged in an erotically-charged contest with deadly consequences.

Barker has said that he doesn't aim to entertain playgoers. In his view, a "good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal." In Judith, Barker's emphasis is on ambition and desire. His Judith is emphatically secular. After decapitating Holofernes, she tells her Servant (Patricia Buckley): "To kill your enemies, how easy that is. To murder the offending, how oddly stale. Real ecstasy must come from liquidating innocence, to punish in the absence of offence." Despite Grey's admirable performance, the title character's motivations, beyond her feminist fervor, are never entirely clear.

Vinegar Tom, one of Churchill's most accessible dramas, consists of scenes from rural life in the north of England during the 17th century witch hunts. At times, the play is reminiscent of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, though without the moral ballast of Miller's protagonist John Proctor.

The village that Churchill has imagined is populated by vivid female characters: Joan (Nesba Crenshaw), a widow who borrows and begs to make ends meet; her daughter Alice (Tara Giordano), an unwed mother eager for carnal encounters to allay incessant loneliness; Ellen (Lucy Faust), adept at herbal medicine and free with advice regarding the hard knocks of country living; Betty (Caitlyn Meagher), consumed by anxiety at the prospect of the marriage her parents have arranged; and Susan (Chelsea Malone), worn out from domestic responsibility and frequent pregnancies.

Churchill matches each of these women with an adversary eager to subject her to the scrutiny of the itinerant Henry Packer (Steven Dykes), who claims God has called him to save the community by unmasking witches operating under Lucifer's personal direction. Jack (Bill Army) and his wife Margery (Kathleen Wise), for instance, hope to increase their landholdings when Joan and Alice are convicted of sorcery and dispossessed of their property. They don't mind that Packer and his hardboiled assistant (Buckley) ignore reason and subject the women under investigation to cruel, humiliating forms of injustice.

Churchill wrote Vinegar Tom for a British troupe that called itself The Monstrous Regiment in mocking reference to John Knox's tract The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558)." The playwright periodically interrupts her historical drama with musical numbers, stylishly performed by Caitlin Rose Duffy, Joelle Mendoza, and Liana Barron, that comment on women's lives in both the past and the present. A vaudeville turn, "Lament for Witches," inspired by a late 15th century treatise on witches by Keirich Kramer and Jacob Springer, serves as a Brechtian epilogue, with Crenshaw and Faust singing and dancing as Kramer and Springer, respectively.

Directors Richard Romagnoli (Judith) and Cheryl Faraone (Vinegar Tom), working with scenic designer Hallie Zieselman and lighting designer Mark Evancho, make the small Atlantic Stage 2 seem ample. That's an especially impressive accomplishment in Churchill's play, with its 13-member cast and many scenes set in various locations.

What's most engaging about this Barker/Churchill evening is the way the company's actors do double and triple duty (both these plays and in the concurrent PTP production of Barker's masterwork Scenes from an Execution). With repertory theater now a rarity, it's exhilarating to observe first-rate actors transforming themselves from one character to another, becoming, in short order, something distinct, convincing, and just right for the text they're performing.

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Double Feature: Judith & Vinegar Tom
Written by Howard Barker (Judith) & Caryl Churchill (Vinegar Tom)
Directors: Richard Romagnoli (Judith) & Cheryl Varaone (Vinegar Tom)
Cast: Judith: Pamela J. Gray (Judith), Alex Draper (Holofernes) and Patricia Buckley (The Servant); Vinegar Tom: Tara Giordano (Alice), Bill Army (Jack), Kathleen Wise (Margery), Lucy Faust (Ellen, Sprenger), Nesba Crenshaw (Joan, Kramer), Chelsea Melone (Susan), Caitlyn Meagher (Betty), Steven Dykes (Man, Doctor, Packer), Patricia Buckley (Goody), Madeley Crenshaw-Dykes and Company (Townspeople), and Caitlyn Rose Duffy, Joelle Mendoza, Liana Barron (The Singers)
Scenic Design: Hallie Zieselman
Costume Design: Mira Veikley (Judith) & Annie Ulrich (Vinegar Tom)
Lighting Design: Mark Evancho
Sound Design: Cormac Bluestone (Judith) & Aubrey Dube (Vinegar Tom)
Production Stage Manager: Evangeline Rose Whitlock
Running Time: Two hours, 25 minutes, with one intermission
Produced by PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project
Atlantics Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street
Opened 7/14/15; closing 8/8/15
Reviewed by Charles Wright at a July 12th press performance

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