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The Crucible: Sock ‘n’ Buskin’s latest is something of a trial

By Joseph Hutt on January 26, 2016

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Joseph Hutt is a freelance writer and editor in Ottawa, and a radio host on CKCU. You can find links to his various endeavours on his website, at www.cuppajoebooks.com.

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I absolutely loved Sock ‘n’ Buskin‘s performance of Dr. Faustus, so when I was offered the chance of seeing their most recent production, The Crucible, I was stoked for another fun-filled evening. While it kept with the interesting theme of demonic temptation, I was not so easily seduced by this production.

The Crucible takes places in the midst of the Salem witch trials, in a town ready to tear itself apart to reach a state of “moral purity.” However, it soon becomes obvious that everyone, from the village minister to the local landowners, has their own personal axe to grind.

At the fore of this movement is a group of village girls, led by Jasmine Stamos as Abigail Williams. Abigail and her entourage, caught “dancing in the moonlight” and looking as though they were plucked out of a punkier version of The Craft, play upon the superstitions of the townsfolk, driving a rift between those who were once friends and neighbours.

At the centre of the drama is John Proctor, played by Ryan Pickering, whose wife Elizabeth (Molly Maguire) is accused of witchcraft by a jealous Abigail. Spurred on by this personal tragedy, John does what he can to bring reason to his neighbours and expose the lies being spread.

As one can imagine, the emotions in this performance run quite high. Shouting matches abound, but  raised voices do not necessarily make well-acted arguments. Too often I saw these blowouts simply as actors pretending to be mad at one another; there was a visible distance between them and the emotion they were trying to portray.

Of course, anger is probably one of the more unsettling emotions to identify with and portray realistically, and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to participate in some sort of hate voyeurism. However, when anger is such a constant part to the narrative, the actors need to be able to express where it is their characters are coming from, which wasn’t quite done.

Despite all the drama, this play tends to drag out. After three and a half hours long (with a fifteen minute intermission), the low-energy scenes of incessant bickering and idle onlookers—punctuated by brief moments of violence—are hard to focus on. While this is sometimes put to comical effect, such as during Pickering’s awkwardly protracted meal of rat stew and cider, I found myself losing interest more often than not.

The antiquated dialects offered no favours to the performance either as, like with the high emotions, there was a distance between the actors and the period they were trying to represent. This is probably too subjective, but they really just sounded like modern actors reciting old words. This can be done well—and was done well in their version of Dr. Faustus, which had an incredible flair for the 17th century verse—but in this production it was simply odd.

Notable performances go to Ethan Pitcher and Kevin Nimmock, playing the ministers Samuel Parris and John Hale, as well as Rachel Gilmore as Judge Danforth. Pitcher had one of the most dynamic characters on stage, with all the passion of a hellfire preacher, hinting at his self-serving heart just enough to make you want to push him in a ditch, where he might find more suitable vermin to commune with. Nimmock plays counter to Pitcher as the virtuous priest, who’s only flaw is that he can’t see his people for the ink of the gospel. He does a good job of portraying inner turmoil, as he tries to reconcile the word of god with the ungodly things that are being done in his name.

Gilmore, as the cold and detached Judge Danforth, is a commanding presence, lording over the condemned from atop her chair in the trial scenes. She captures well the clinical attitudes of a judge who believes they are justice incarnate. She also has some spot on reactions to religious taboo, and doesn’t bat an eye at the poorly premised and flawed religious law that she doles out.

There are certainly some good points about this performance—the goth-y wardrobe, the set design of the trial, and the performances of the aforementioned actors—but be prepared for a performance that feels as though it should be an hour shorter. But then, I’ve recently come to decide I’m not the best person to review forms of historical fiction, so don’t take my word as the final say.

Sock ‘n’ Buskin has created some amazing performances in the past, this one just wasn’t my cup of tea.

If you’re interested in checking out this performance, there are plenty of performances left. It runs at 7pm on January 28-30 in the Kalish Mital Theatre. Tickets are $15, with a five dollar discount for students ($10).

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