BOTTOM LINE: I really liked this production of a rarely staged play; it might need more time to gel, but it will hopefully continue to improve throughout the run.
The Witch of Edmonton is your classic classical play. Intrigues, murders, seductions, secret marriages, false allegiances, wenches, witches, and whores. It is basically an entire week of primetime television in two and a half hours, except there is also the delightfully elevated language and genuinely funny jokes that you won't find in primetime.
The basic plot is straightforward - well, as straightforward as any Jacobean play. Girl meets boy, girl is already pregnant with another man's child, girls swears eternal fealty to the boy and they get married. Boy hies off to his father, who has plans to marry him off to another girl with way more land and money, so he and his son won't be ruined forever. Boy agrees to marry second girl, because nothing could possibly go wrong, right? Oh, except for the crazy old woman who lives under the stage and one night accidentally comes upon a devil who sucks her blood in exchange for mischief making of her choice. She sets the devil on her tormentors in the town, including our erstwhile hero, who in a fit of devilish mayhem, kills his second wife to be with his first wife, and blames her murder on her ex-suitor and his friend. Classical tragicomedy-type chaos ensues.
There's also André De Shields in town as Old Banks, a local witch-hunter, and to see him and Charlayne Woodard (she plays Elizabeth Sawyer, the old woman who lives under the stage) together was a dream come true for me, as Ain't Misbehavin' is my most favorite musical ever. (To explain: Ain't' Misbehavin' is the musical that launched both of their careers in the late 70s and the first Broadway recording that I listened to all day, every day. So there's a little tidbit about me and how I almost passed out from joy during their scenes together. Enjoy.)
I liked the scope of the set, although I sometimes felt the staging suffered from the actors having to maneuver around the giant square. There is almost no color onstage, and while I appreciate the effort and artistry of keeping everything neutral, my eyes were relieved to see color again once the show came down. These are minor points, though, and don't impact the show in any significant way.
As for the script, I can't really come down too hard on a show that was written for a viewing audience of 400 years ago, but I will say that I thought the ending was a little overburdened with tying up loose ends (that sound you're hearing right now is that of our eminent playwrights from the 1600s - Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley - rolling over in their graves at this particular criticism). The actors are all lovely and serve the language well. Derek Smith, who plays the Devil Dog, and Charlayne Woodard are especially dominant and charismatic. And special mention goes to Adam Green, for his quirky and hilarious work playing Cuddy Banks, the witch hunter's son; as is usually the case with the most innocent character, he is the only one who can perceive the real truth.
One small caveat: the night I went, the show seemed a bit off, like the oven burner that won't turn on and just stays stuck in that annoying clicky stage until you give up. There was a kind of lethargy about the evening that didn't sit quite right. I think after a few more performances, it'll be cooking with gas. The particular quirks of that one performance notwithstanding, I think The Witch of Edmonton is a superlative piece of theatre.
(The Witch of Edmonton plays at Theater at St. Clement's, 423 West 46th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, through February 20, 2011. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $40-$75 and are available at redbulltheater.com or by calling 212.352.3101. For more info visit redbulltheater.com.)