Reviews of: A NUMBER and VINEGAR TOM

by Lynn on April 29, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

Playwright Project 2014

For the past three years Founder and Project Director Alex “Addy” Johnson and her artistic team have created a festival of one act plays devoted to one playwright. In its first year the playwright was Tennessee Williams. In the second it was Sam Shepard. This year it’s British titan Caryl Churchill.

Churchill’s work is as fascinating as it is controversial, obtuse, clear, provocative, subversive, game changing, theatre-defining and always, always challenging. The variety of subjects explored is mind-blowing. Her use of language is like no other playwright because she re-invents it and you are never in doubt as to what she means.

From April 23 to May 4, four spunky independent theatre companies will present a play each which gives a taste of Churchill’s range as a playwright. They are: A Number produced by Cart/Horse Theatre. Vinegar Tom produced by Neoteny Theatre, Drunk Enough To Say I Love You produced by Circle Snake Productions, and Three More Sleepless Nights produced by Bad Joe.

I saw two plays of the four this weekend. I’m seeing the other two this week.

A Number.

Produced by Cart/Horse Theatre. Directed by Matthew Gorman. Starring: Craig Pike and Mark Whelan.

Cloning, identity, the relationship between fathers and sons, trust and the truth. These are some of the themes playwright Caryl Churchill explores in her play A Number. Bernard(2) is upset. He has found out that he is a clone and tells his father, Salter, and that there are a number of them, and he’s not sure how many. He’s not sure if he’s the original. He’s not sure how this happened—he mentions some mad scientist. The truth is more frightening. Bernard is as confused and concerned as his father is trying to be supportive and initially hiding the truth.

Another son appears looking exactly the same but not the same, Bernard (1). He is combative, accusatory, dangerous. Salter is scrambling to explain. Is this Bernard the original? And then there is Michael who looks like the others but seems to have little interest or connection to Salter.

Fascinating. Leave it to Churchill to explore cloning in such a way that while the three (known) clones look alike, they are totally different. There is a suggestion (I’m not giving it away) that the reason for the clone was to produce an exact replica of the original. And physically they look alike. In a lovely touch both Craig Pike as all the sons (Bernard 1, 2, and Michael) have the same kind of goatee as Mark Whelan who plays Salter the father. They all wear button down shirts. But the sons are different and Pike differentiates them beautifully. Bernard 2 is confused, trusting of his father, upset of course and questioning of what happened. Bernard 1 is angry, accusatory towards Salter, aggressive in his questioning and definitely not trusting of Salter. Finally Michael is uninvolved and unconcerned in a way. This is a glitch and Salter is a stranger to him. There is a reserve and distance between this ‘son’ and that father. Whelan on the other hand shifts and reacts to each ‘son’; at first trying to hide the truth and appear uninvolved; then trying to address the accusations of Bernard 1, and then trying to see a connection to Michael.

Director Matthew Gorman has created the different attitudes and relationships with clarity and economy. There are only two chairs that are moved depending on the scene. A Number . The acting by both Pike and Whelan is compelling. The story is gripping.

Vinegar Tom

Produced by Neoteny Theatre. Directed by Carly Chamberlain. Starring: Madeleine Donahue, Sophia Fabilli, John Gordon, Lynne Griffin, Keelin Jack, Jessica Moss, Kelly Penner, Sabryn Rock.

This is Churchill’s 1976 play dealing with witch hunts in the 17th century in England. Not to be confused with Arthur Miller’s play (1953) The Crucible, which also dealt with witch hunts in Salem Massachusetts in 1692-93, Miller’s play is a metaphor for the McCarthy witch hunts in the States in 1952.

In Vinegar Tom Churchill is exploring the inequity of women through the ages right up to the time of her writing the work. Alice, a saucy, tough talking woman has a flirtation with a mysterious man. The sex is rough and quick. She is enamoured of him. He is not with her. He considers her a whore. Insults fly. He calls her a witch. That’s the attitude. Men can blithely sleep with women and not have their reputations sullied. But women can’t do the same without being called whore, tart, and base.

Margery is a dutiful, hardworking wife to Jack. He treats her with disdain because he feels guilty. He is hopelessly attracted to another. Again when the advances are rebuffed insults and threats result.

There are many references to witchcraft and frequent and hideous efforts to rid a woman of the witchcraft in them no matter the age. The torture is done by self-righteous men. The other women of the village get into the vindictive spirit so that the women charged with witchcraft are either killed or driven out of the village. In one of Churchill’s most chilling inventions, Vinegar Top is the main culprit of the witch craft in the area. Vinegar Tom is a cat and the pet of Alice’s mother.

Director Carly Chamberlain has produced a production that is swift, efficient and realizes those things in the play that make us squirm for all the right reasons. The large cast is always on stage, situated in chairs on either side of the playing area, ready for swift entrances and exists. There is also a sense of the players being witnesses to the goings on, when they aren’t in a scene, as well as participants when they are in a scene.

Misogynistic lyrics of modern day songs are projected on a back wall to bring the point home that equality of the sexes is a reality in Churchill’s world at least.

As Margery, Madeleine Donahue is dutiful to her husband Jack but pensive with him. His mind is elsewhere; he is ill-tempered and she’s trying desperately to hold on to him. As Jack, John Gordon has the weight of the world on his shoulders. There is the guilt of his obsession with another. There is his wanting revenge to get even when he’s spurned. Every second on a farm is a challenge and he never lets Margery forget it. As Alice, Sabryn Rock is flirtatious, tough, desperate and resigned to being thought lowly. As her mother Joan Lynne Griffin has a defiant streak that could frighten the toughest men. She plays up being considered a witch with speeches that are nuanced, dangerous, subtle and attacking.

Another terrific production of a play by the prickly but always provocative Caryl Churchill.

Playwright Project
From April 23 to May 4
At the Downstage
Downstairs from the Magic Oven Restaurant
798 Danforth Ave.

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