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Gambit Weekly Thrill of the Hunt

By Dalt Wonk

MAY 11, 1998:  The director's notes to the recent Tulane production of Caryl Churchill's Vinegar Tom are a mosaic of quotes on the subject of witchcraft.

"It is rating our conjectures too highly to roast people alive for them," says Montaigne, writing with sardonic understatement at a time when the issue was still very real.

But most of the quotes come from contemporary female writers such as Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor, who state (in their book The Great Cosmic Mother): "Men in patriarchal societies learn, or reveal, a great jealousy and fear of natural women -- of the sexual, mental and spiritual abilities of fully evolved women living in harmony with the consequences of our own bodies. The menstrual taboo is the consequence of this fear and resentment. ... There is the 'good little ovulating wife' who is supposed to be passive and not very sexual; it's hard for even a woman to feel sexy cleaning the toilet bowl. And then there is 'witch,' the sex fiend, whore, scarlet woman ... of active, dynamic, menstrual sexuality."

At this point, before the house lights have even dimmed, one can observe most of the men in the audience putting down their programs and glancing with furtive longing at the exit signs. After all, though few of us want to see "fully evolved women" tortured and hung, who among us can declare with any real conviction that his attitude toward the menstrual cycle is beyond reproach?

In fact, a man in this audience feels something akin to what the witches themselves often must have felt: accused in a furious and persuasive diatribe of a vague malevolent heresy they are incapable of refuting and which they do not even quite understand.

Meanwhile, the women in the audience are almost involuntarily cast in the role of the witch hunters. Some undoubtedly believe the men are guilty as charged -- tainted by patriarchy, by phallocracy, by "maleness." And the majority of women are simply swept along by the rhetoric -- by solidarity, fashion and their own personal feelings of resentment.

Men viewing Churchill's Vinegar Tom (right) at Tulane may have felt a bit like the witches being hunted on stage.
In this sense, the play brilliantly re-creates in the audience the actual dynamic of the witch hunt. Somehow, though, I doubt this was Churchill's intention.

The play begins by introducing the first in a series of evil male characters, an aristocrat who is screwing a farm wench out in the fields at night. It is clearly a casual meeting. She does not even know his name. Nonetheless, she asks him to marry her and take her and her baby to London with him. He disdains her cruelly -- all the while making a series of heavy-handed references to the devil.

Next, we meet an ambitious but sexually estranged couple who are small landowners of the prosperous peasant class. Their repressed sexuality will eventually express itself in a charge of witchcraft against the farm wench and her old, eccentric mother.

A professional witch hunter arrives in town. He tortures the women and proves they are witches. Mother and daughter are hung, as is the proto-New Age "white witch" who deals in herbs, cures, spells and prognostications. The wench's friend-turned-informer is hung as well for good measure.

Churchill is not really interested in these people as individuals. She uses them in a "Brechtian" way -- to present a situation we are meant to contemplate from a distance. To emphasize this aspect, she introduces a chorus in modern dress who sing pop songs with lyrics about injustice, intolerance and, yes, menstruation.

Brecht, however, is one of those "do as I say and not as I do" theoreticians. For all his talk about the "alienation effect" and didactic theater, he invariably becomes intensely involved with his characters and their situations. However he may huff and puff about not engaging us emotionally, he pulls us into the world of his plays and we live there with him.

The production at Tulane had much to recommend it. Under Ron Gural's direction, the cast (Samantha Franco, Elia Nichols, Kelsey McLachlan, Leslie Gastineau, Alexandra Kueper, Sharon Kom, Heather Hollingsworth, Jonathan Siegel, Michael Downing and Sam Bashiti) presented the story clearly and with conviction. The catchy tunes by Paul Schierhorn were put across with considerable verve. And Jeff Mabray's set and Janet Harreld's costumes were effective.

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