Arts » Stage

What's at Stake

The Coterie's play about witches isn't just a fairy tale.


When your bread's buttered by field trips, including busloads from the No Myth Left Behind public schools of Kansas, you probably don't need the Pitch pointing out that your latest production is both politically and religiously trenchant.

So when it comes to the Coterie Theatre's The Witch of Blackbird Pond, a winningly staged young-adult witch-trial drama that I'm tempted to label Jim Henson's Crucible Babies, I'll try not to carry on about the politics. For the kids' sake. God knows I never wanted my mom finding out about the grown-up stuff broiling in Then Again, Maybe I Won't.

We'll leave it at this. When a Connecticut town's least uptight Puritan dares to suggest that Quakers aren't necessarily witches, the show's villainous man of God shuts down all dissent, spitting back, "Perhaps you are under a spell." It's impossible not to hear the Bush-era equivalents: "Maybe you don't support the troops." "Maybe you hate Christians." "Maybe you've been listening to the liberal media."

Adapted from Elizabeth George Speare's popular novel, Witch documents the troubles in store for a free-spirited slip of a teen named Kit (Amy Lewis, with fiery braids and a light inside her) when she moves to Puritan country. From the moment she crashes with her Connecticut relatives, Kit runs afoul of their black-breeches-and-suffering ethos. Her uncle Matthew regards her books with disdain, telling her, "We have a Bible." Kit can't fit in, dresses flashily and admits to being bored at church; when she takes up with local outcast and reputed witch Hannah Tupper (the excellent Nancy Marcy), it's only a matter of time before she winds up in the stocks looming upstage.

Familiar as it is, the show's thoroughly engaging. Emily Cramer's set is spookily bare, a minimal stage backed by naked tree trunks that, as the tension mounts, are lit with alarming reds. It's at once stark and fanciful, all torch flame and fairy tale. These darker moods are lightened by some inventive puppetry: a fluffy tumbleweed of a cat designed by Matt Hill and delightfully operated by Paseo Academy student Anastasia Zorin.

The humans are good, too. As Kit's lame-legged cousin, Mercy, high school student Alison Meagher-Manson dimples up and gushes whimsy. Adam Wasserman's Puritan dandy seems to be decked out in curtains and a doily as he strikes Washington-crossing-the-Delaware poses to make silly boasts. Wasserman is an MFA student in UMKC's acting department; so are Ingrid Andrea Geurtsen and Mateusz Lewczenko, two favorites from that program's thrilling Maids' Tragedy who are good here, too. The athletic Geurtsen gives her Aunt Rachel independent mettle that we're touched to see in a Puritan wife, and Lewczenko keeps the witch-burning Rev. Gish from being hopelessly two-dimensional.

Because this show is the product of kind people, many of the Puritans come off as harmless cranks. Kit's cousins even school her on the evils of slavery and indentured servitude. This is wrongheaded. The Puritans fancied themselves God's chosen people and happily worked and sold the Africans they considered inferior. In fact, by the 18th century (when this story is set), Puritan New England was the slave-trading capital of the Americas.

Yes, the horrors of slavery would overwhelm this fine little play. But if the subject is to be broached, it should be done so honestly. This is what separates artists and relativists from fundamentalists of all stripes. Fundamentalists, without facts to back them up, consign us to hells of their own invention. We, on the other hand, catalog evidence of fundamentalist cruelty and ignorance but still believe that, deep down, they're worth forgiving.

No. Some people are just assholes. This Witch's politics shouldn't trouble anybody. After all, if there's one thing that our local fundamentalists can't grasp, it's metaphor. (There's also science, complexity and the pacifist teachings of their savior. But I digress.) That said, being ill-suited to art might give fundies a leg up in untangling UMKC's new Kafka-meets-Dickens-meets-blow-job-joke adaptation of The Trial at Union Station. Several other Maids' Tragedy alums are there, like Kafka's numerous K's, just this close to figuring out what the hell's going on.

The show is promising at first but soon becomes enormously tiresome. A few early set pieces work up both existential terror and genuine hilarity (K addressing an unseen magistrate is almost worth the headaches to follow), but there are too many characters, and there's too much spiritless double talk and too little dread.

Two fantastic comic performances nearly salvage the night. David Graham Jones is indefatigable as the man accused of an unnamed crime, onstage at every moment and constantly topping himself with fresh consternation. And Kathryn Bartholomew is wonderfully amok as K's lawyer, Kleist, a wheelchair-bound harridan who bellows constant nonsense. Kleist is writer-director Kenneth Albers' invention, and her many funny speeches (love the Bleak House shout out) demonstrate that his loose, farcical approach has promise. He veers from the novel, sometimes fruitfully and sometimes bafflingly, but for some reason, he sticks with Kafka on what doesn't work: the lack of any meaningful progression from Act 1 to the climax. Kafka, at least, had an excuse. He never finished the damn thing.

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