Caryl Churchill is one of my favorite playwrights, but after seeing the University of Pittsburgh production of Vinegar Tom I spent the rest of the night reminding myself why.
As frighteningly intelligent as Tom Stoppard but eschewing his playwright-as-puzzlemaker aesthetic, Churchill's plays are about as far from the "well-written" genre as you can get. Like Brecht she refuses us the comfort of just "watching a play," instead twisting time, style and space so we must listen to what's being said.
And what's being said in Vinegar Tom -- her proto-feminist 1976 take on England's 17th-century witch hysteria -- is that being the object of desire by men (whether for sex, domesticity or financial gain) will almost certainly be the ruin of women. Using material sourced to the time, she points out that men projected onto women their own sins and then meted out the punishment. As one of the male characters says: "If a women is not wed, widowed or a virgin, she's a whore or a witch."
But Churchill being Churchill, nothing's this simple -- least of all the manner in which the story is told. She interrupts these scenes with contemporary music and blistering lyrics indicting us in the process. Her final point is the most scalding: We -- a culture feasting on "evil" women and rejoicing in their downfall -- are no different than the villagers lining up to watch a witch burn.
My limited powers may do an injustice to the scope of Vinegar Tom, but it's light years ahead of the comprehension in this Pitt production. Most unfortunate is the decision to present the musical numbers as visits to a karaoke bar; the concept tires quickly and almost nobody in the cast has the instincts or voice to handle the songs. While most of them can't sing, several can act, the female side especially. But director Ryan Howe is so lost in making this production "vivid" he loses the story's spine. And this is a script in desperate need of a strong storytelling hand. You don't ever need to deconstruct a Churchill play -- she's already done it for you.Vinegar Tom continues through Sun., Feb. 11. Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow, Oakland. 412-624-PLAY