Vinegar Tom

By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Alexandra Aron
Teabag Productions
Third Eye Rep
22 W. 34th St. (414-7792)
Equity showcase (closes June 19)
Review by Doug DeVita

Wow-what a thrilling piece of work is this Vinegar Tom, Caryl Churchill's forceful and funny exploration of witchhunts in mid-17th-century England... not about evil, hysteria, and possession by the devil but about poverty, humiliation and prejudice, and how the women accused of witchcraft saw themselves.

Sometimes letting the story play out in traditional linear fashion, occasionally stepping outside of the action to comment on it with a series of anachronistic, vaudeville-type musical numbers, Vinegar Tom was conceived by Ms. Churchill in the mid-'70s. Writing with a simmering rage that often boils over into explosions of hilarious black humor, Churchill is clear and uncompromising in her vision, yet the feminist perspective that drives the play never becomes strident or tiresome. She makes her points about the domination of women by men (and the domination of men by their own hypocrisy, stupidity, and sexual arrogance) with a potent mix of common sense and decisive passion. Similarly, Helen Glavin's original score, arranged for this production by Peter Keisewalter, underlines Churchill's point of view with caustic grace and wit.

Directed by Alexandra Aron with a vision as clear and uncompromising as Churchill's, Teabag Productions' Vinegar Tom was an inventive, intelligent, and exciting evening, a boiling witch's brew as appealing as it was lethal. Sharply spinning Churchill's text into vibrant life, Aron and her gifted cast invested the work with a raw emotional energy that grew steadily unsettling as fear, superstition, and paranoia ate away at reason and humanity. Each actor in the nine-member ensemble drew marvelously complete portraits of Churchill's rogue's gallery of characters, impressive in the individual fire brought to each part. In pivotal roles, Megan Hollingshead glowed red hot, Margaret Howard burned clearly and Joyce E. Greene positively spit fire. Anne Gourley, Carolina McNeeley, and Catherine Porter all contributed solid, impressive work, as did the sadistically merry Lisa Gluckin. The two men in the cast performed their difficult roles with dignity and aplomb, Arthur Aulisi touching in his blundering ridiculousness, and Rob Newton frightening in his misguided religious fervor. Also impressive was the naturalness with which the cast, under the guidance of dialect coach Richard P. Gang, managed the period dialect, sustaining it with an ease that seemed as if they had been born to it.

Visually, the production perfectly captured the flavor of the period and the piece. Scott Shreck's simple wood and scrim setting, complemented by Amy Appleyard's subtly sinister lighting, effectively established mood and place, while Susan L. Soetaert's beautifully finished costumes whispered volumes about the people living in them.

An outstanding evening of smart theatricality, Vinegar Tom is Teabag Productions' debut on the Off-Off broadway scene and it is a winner, auguring well for this new company's future. Welcome.
Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita