Theatre Mirror Reviews --- "The Witch of Blackbird Pond"

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Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


adapted by Y. York, from the novel by Elizabeth George Speare

directed and designed by James P. Byrne

Kit Tyler … Katrina Toshiko
Nat Eaton … Shelley Bolman
Reverend Gideon Gish … Neil Gustafson
Goody Rebecca Gish … Kippy Goldfarb
Prudence Gish … Jenna Spencer
John Holcomb … Stephen Libby
Matthew Wood … Jeff Robinson
Rachel Wood … Monique Nicole McIntyre
Mercy Wood … Saba Mwine
Judith Wood … Julianne Gale
William Ashby … Samuel Young
Hannah Tupper … Jane Staab
Miss Cat … Veronica Maxfield
Magistrate Talbot … Erik Dickinson

I managed to catch the final performance of the Wheelock Family Theatre’s production of THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND and found it to be interesting as well as agreeable entertainment; interesting due to comparisons between Elizabeth George Spencer’s award-winning 1958 novel and Y. York’s adaptation; the production’s use of an interracial cast; and, especially, the audience itself --- children.

The scene is the colony of Connecticut; the year, 1687. Katherine (“Kit”) Tyler, the book’s heroine, sails from her home in Barbados where she was raised by her late grandfather to live with her only remaining kin, the Woods, in stern, Puritanical New England. Though her uncle, aunt, and two cousins (female) take her in with varying degrees of hospitality, the townspeople view Kit with suspicion from Day One: not only does she sport fancy clothes and has a frank tongue, Kit can also swim, knows how to read and write, and befriends an old Quaker woman branded as a witch, all of which brings the charge of sorcery down upon her own head. Along the way, Kit charms three young men despite their reservations, and the novel ends with her marrying the one who understands her best; her two cousins happily pair off with the remaining fellows. The novel is a pleasant read, suitable for youngsters (girls, especially) with just enough historical detail to give it flavor though Ms. Speare’s Puritans come off more as strict parents than a bigoted, narrow-minded people, and Kit (amazingly, never beaten) escapes the gallows because, well, because she’s the heroine. (As Oscar Wilde’s Miss Prism would say, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”) Y. York’s adaptation was serviceable, swift and easy to follow, though the playwright did take liberties that ranged from the politically correct (Kit now has bonded servants in Barbados, not slaves) to character transformations (the grim Goody Cruff, forever pointing a finger at Kit, becomes the downtrodden wife of the Reverend Gish who takes over as chief rabble rouser) to outright tinkering (the political subplot of the Connecticut Charter being revoked by the King is omitted --- along with Kit’s loyalty to the King --- and cousin Judith hysterically denounces Kit as a witch in court). These revisions may be Y. York’s attempts to plant THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND more firmly in reality, but Ms. Spencer’s book is closer to fairytales than THE SCARLET LETTER or THE CRUCIBLE and didn’t take kindly to such burdening.

Aesthetically, the production’s interracial cast did the play a disservice, not only because the Puritans were white Anglo-Saxon stock but theirs was a harsh culture that banned or condemned anything that deviated from their norm --- including other races (witchcraft = voodoo = slaves = black = witchcraft). Whether having an integrated cast was due to director James P. Byrne’s interpretation of the play or his making do with the company’s actors, why would Kit --- here, played by an Asian-American actress --- be viewed as different by the townspeople when three of the four members of the Wood family were African-American, a well-to-do suitor was Asian-American, and the Caucasian Reverend and Goody Gish had an African-American daughter? True, the ensemble played their roles “white”, but can you imagine the ruckus raised if, say, a Civil War drama had non-African American actors cast as slaves? When a play deals with historical prejudice, oppression and/or segregation, it makes no sense to blend even if it means depriving good actors the opportunity to be seen and heard.

But all of the above fell by the wayside if THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND was viewed through the eyes of the majority of the Wheelock audience --- young children --- and judging by their rapt attention, Mr. Byrne’s production was a success. Indeed, there were many pleasures to be found here, including Mr. Byrne’s crisp direction and his own clever unit set which adapted to various locales with ease, even though the bewitching Blackbird Pond was neither revealed nor evoked. The set may have been appropriately brown and drab, but the acting was lively and colorful, the standouts being Neil Gustafson and Kippy Goldfarb as the self-righteous Gishes, Erik Dickinson as a pompous magistrate, and, especially, Jane Stabb as the so-called Witch of Blackbird Pond --- a veritable Mother Goose figure. (A special mention goes to young Veronica Maxfield as Ms. Staab’s black cat, delightfully --- and amazingly --- played in pantomime without a trace of camp.) The children were enchanted (the adults in the audience showed no signs of restlessness, either) --- not only were they experiencing live theatre (many, for the first time?), they were cutting their teeth on one of the basics --- Melodrama.

If you attend the theatre often enough and you sample all kinds of entertainments, now and then you yearn for something that needn’t be profound or heavy or provoke endless discussion, and that’s where a little Melodrama can cleanse the palette. Granted, Ms. Spencer’s tale is a watered-down version, but with its personifications of good or evil and its edge-of-the-seat plot, ‘tis Melodrama all the same. (For those who dismiss the genre as cornball and old-fashioned, hand me a listing of the current films and I’ll gladly point out what state-of-the-art melodramas are playing up there on the big screen.) To hear the children gasp when Cousin Mercy dropped to the floor in a fever or their peals of treble laughter during a chase scene between the Gishes and the Witch’s cat or their sudden silence when Kit was put in the stocks: here was bewitchment, all right --- the bewitchment of Theatre --- and may these children demand more, more, more.

I had previously known Mr. Byrne’s work only from his directing The Gold Dust Orphans through their Hollywood romps --- all of which, of course, are Melodramas; his production of the Orphan’s CAMILLE is still one of the best things I’ve seen all year, and it worked beautifully from Mr. Byrne’s drawing out all of its throbbing emotionalism while parodying it at the same time. THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND was far more conventional, of course, but it also showed Mr. Byrne’s hand (and his belief) in all of the blood-and-thunder goings on. He may become one of our leading directors of Melodrama (again, the very roots of our modern theatre); I would love to see him tackle some old chestnut like either THE FATHER or THE HEART OF MARYLAND, which I once described as the play with the Southern heroine hanging from the bell clapper in order to save her Yankee sweetheart. Or, failing that, Mr. Byrne can always bring WITCH to the Orphans --- it would probably be called THE BITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND, for starters, but I can safely say that anything with Mr. Byrne at the helm would be --- if not Good Theatre --- at least, Good Theatrical.

"The Witch of Blackbird Pond" (1-24 November)
The Wheelock Family Theatre
180 The Riverway, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 734-4760

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide