More laughter than darkness in Huntington’s ‘Witch’
BOSTON – Tis the season for anything having to do with a woman who flies with the aid of a broom, but the title character in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Jen Silverman’s “Witch” isn’t actually a witch at all.
Her name is Elizabeth Sawyer (Lyndsay Allyn Cox) and she is an outsider, and as an outsider who lives alone is subject to every vile rumor and gossip that the small-minded residents of the town can conjure up. And that includes everything up to and including a witch.
At the top of the pyramid is Sir Arthur Banks (Barzin Akhavan), a widowed wealthy landowner, and his son Cuddy Banks (Nick Sulfaro), a devoted Morris dancer and the apparent heir to the Banks fortune except for one particular problem: He hasn’t, for good reason. shown any interest in providing the male heir Sir Arthur covets.
That has opened the door for Frank Thorney (Javier David Padilla), an opportunist and social climber from a lower-class background whom Sir Arthur treats as a member of the family. He has become quite comfortable at the castle, and his very existence threatens Cuddy’s inheritance.
Thorney is also secretly married to the servant Winifred (Gina Fonseca).
Sulfaro is a gifted comic actor, but there are times when he takes it a bit over the top. Director Rebecca Bradshaw appears willing to ride Silverman’s characters for all they are worth and let Sulfaro take the character where he may.
Silverman has shown in the past how adept she is at drawing interesting characters and putting them into situations ripe with comedic possibilities. The Lyric Stage Company of Boston in 2018 staged a strong production of Silverman’s “The Roommate” starring Paula Plum and Adrianne Krstansky as a mismatched pair in the same type of dark comedy as “Witch.”
But the darkness here isn’t quite as dark, although Silverman does deliver laughs of a subtle and less subtle manner, often reverting to physical humor and a bit of slapstick.
“Witch” is loosely based on the “The Witch of Edmonton,” an early 17th Century English play partly based on the story of Elizabeth Sawyer, who was hanged as a witch in April 1621.
Everybody wants and needs something, and the situation Silverman has created is ripe for a visit by the devil, known here by his pseudonym Scratch and winningly performed by Michael Underhill. He paid his dues doing fine work with smaller companies such as imaginary beasts and Fresh Ink and is now seen often with well-regarded troupes such as Actors Shakespeare Project, the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and the Huntington.
Nattily attired in black leather and black boots — kudos to Chelsea Kerl’s period costumes – Underhill makes for a dashing Scratch.
Alas, it turns out that our Scratch isn’t the best salesman, flubs the paperwork, and doesn’t always close the deal. And – ahem – he is not exactly a fair trader when comes to getting a good return for your soul. His dealings with Cuddy and Frank Thorney give the men far more on the dollar for their souls than what Scratch is willing to give for Elizabeth’s.
Scratch realizes that Elizabeth is not a witch, but asks her if she’d like to be, able to wreak havoc on those who have turned their back on her. Early on, she politely declines.
In this instance, though Scratch is not merely a salesman and Elizabeth not just a prospective buyer. There is something more than the witty back-and-forth. Eventually, Cox, a fine actress, is able to realize the leverage she has in the triangle of deals Scratch has made and in this case the devil is most definitely in the details.
Will Elizabeth ultimately make her deal with the devil, and what she will ask for? And what will that mean for the world around her?
The Huntington Theatre Company production of Jen Silverman’s “Witch.” Directed by Rebecca Bradshaw. In the Wimberly Theater, Calderwood Pavilion, of the Boston Center for the Arts through Nov. 14. Filmer performance available online from Nov. 1-28. Huntingtontheatre.org