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Theatre Reviews Stratford Festival 2019: Perhaps Arthur Miller’s The Crucible should be mangled, but not like this

Arthur Miller’s retelling of The Crucible has come under scrutiny in the #MeToo era.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Handout

  • Title: The Crucible
  • Written by: Arthur Miller
  • Director: Jonathan Goad
  • Actors: Tim Campbell, Shannon Taylor, Wayne Best
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Avon Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to October 25, 2019

rating

The Stratford Festival’s new production of The Crucible brings to mind the title of a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Director Jonathan Goad has mounted what is certainly the highest decibel version of Arthur Miller’s 1953 tragedy about the Salem witch trials that I’ve ever witnessed – with an onstage hysteria that threatens to topple into the audience at any moment.

The production’s central visual element is an expressionistically lit wooden wall that regularly slides forward, shrinking the staging area in the Avon Theatre and pushing actors – as well chairs and tables and the rest of the set – downstage.

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I’d like to say this means it is a particularly intense production that vividly shows how easy it is to push a community to the edge.

But instead, this Crucible is like spending an evening among shouters and close talkers. It’s a headache.

The Crucible, of course, is based on the true history of the prosecution and execution of people for witchcraft in late 17th-century colonial Massachusetts.

Miller’s retelling centres around a Puritan farmer John Proctor (Tim Campbell) whose wife Elizabeth (Shannon Taylor) is accused of witchcraft by their former servant girl, 17-year-old Abigail (Katelyn McCulloch), with whom Proctor had a sexual relationship while he employed her.

Proctor believes – and the script often leads the audience to agree – that the only hell making an appearance in Salem is that of a woman scorned.

In the #MeToo era, Miller’s decision to tell the story of Salem from this angle – and our collective decision to have taught a play about not taking teenage girls seriously to decades of high-school students – has come under increasing scrutiny.

Stratford marketed The Crucible as if director Jonathan Goad was going to focus on Proctor's flaws over his heroism.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Handout

While the playwright was always open that he had “raised” the real Abigail’s age, there’s more awareness now just how much: She was, in fact, an 11-year-old child. (Proctor was 60ish; Miller only surmised a sexual relationship there.)

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There have been at least three new response plays to The Crucible staged just this summer – two centred around the first accused, the enslaved woman Tituba (Obeah Opera at the Luminato Festival in Toronto; Witch Hunt in California) and another, in California, with the self-explanatory title: John Proctor is the Villain.

Stratford’s marketing around this Crucible suggested that Goad was going to attempt a new reading that would, indeed, focus on Proctor’s flaws over his heroism, calling it “a timeless tragedy of abusive behaviour and its all-consuming consequences."

That provocative idea is not apparent in any way in what’s made it to onstage, however – except perhaps in the usually excellent Campbell’s oddly strained and uncertain performance as Proctor.

There’s a faint suggestion in Goad’s staging of the first scene that Abigail may have been sexually abused by her uncle, Reverend Parris (Scott Wentworth), but it is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that is never followed up.

And when Proctor and Abigail face off moments later, this production starts to feel oddly old school.

As this teenager, McCulloch – an adult actor seemingly around the same age as the one playing Proctor’s wife, which seems notable in this context – flirts and flounces like a femme fatale. Her hammy performance is straight out of soap opera.

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But she far from the only one guilty of overacting – and those playing men with power are the worst offenders. Wentworth howls and whimpers in an over-the-top take on Reverend Parris, while Wayne Best is a walking, talking sneer as Deputy Governor Danforth, the judge who runs the justice-less trials.

When this many actors turn the dial to eleven, it suggests a directorial decision.

Indeed, the primary problem with Goad’s production is not interpretation, but execution.

Rylan Wilkie, centre, plays Reverend Hale, who becomes disillusioned with what he helped put in motion.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Handout

From the start, there’s an ineffective mix of exaggerated movement and cramped and unnatural staging that suggest a stylized vision poorly realized. (The movement director is Adrienne Gould.)

Then, there are weird background distractions such as Sean Arbuckle as a villager carrying around a wooden walking stick he clearly doesn’t need (and with a lightness that leads to a guessing game as to what it is actually made out of).

The acting styles are all over the place. John Dolan, as the litigious Giles Coren, seems to be the only one who gets that Miller’s dialogue (inspired by the actual trial transcripts) is an attempt at a 17th-century dialect of a farming community.

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Many others seem in a verse drama and just declaim the heck out of it.

Bright spots include Mamie Zwettler, bringing true youthful vulnerability to the role of the Proctors’ conflicted current servant, Mary Warren. Rylan Wilkie shows the layers of Reverend Hale, who gradually becomes disillusioned with a legal process he helped put in motion, while Taylor is quiet, contained and full of unspoken inner pain as Elizabeth Proctor.

Her stirring final scene opposite Campbell in the jail gives a hint of a decent Crucible that they could be acting in drowned out by – well, whatever’s going on here.

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