Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Artistic Home
Review by Christine Malcom

Also see Christine's recent review of Twelfth Night and Karen's recent review of Right Now

Julian Hester and Ernest Henton
Photo by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux
In their program notes for The Artistic Home's production of Witch, both the company's artistic director, Kathy Scambiatterra, and the show's director, Devon Carson, voice their admiration for and excitement about Jen Silverman's 2018 play. This enthusiasm comes through in the cast's performances as well as the great, moody vibe the production team achieves, yet the play itself doesn't quite jell well enough to fully merit the effort and talent on display.

In this retelling of a Jacobean drama, The Witches of Edmonton, Silverman is interested in cycles–of ambition, discrimination, heartbreak, and family strife. In light of this, the company's choice to embrace roughly "period" costumes, sets, and props makes an interesting (and largely effective) counterpoint to Silverman's pointedly modern dialogue. The result is individual scenes that work admirably, yet they never quite come together into a coherent whole, and the play ends with something of an awkward whimper.

This disappoints because there is a lot here that is done well and represents much of what is delightful about ambitious, intimate black-box theater. Kevin Hagan's scenic design makes great use of the depth of the space to communicate the claustrophobic watchfulness of the community. The most upstage element is a swagged silk curtain that Ellie Fey's lighting design saturates with red, green, purple or blue when the characters are pulsing with desire and desperation, or with a silvery grey when Elizabeth Sawyer and Scratch share a nightcap and ponder ethical hypotheticals.

Just upstage of this curtain are two levels of black-painted architectural elements suggesting the looming outline of the castle. This is fronted by a long, insistently black dining table, loaded throughout most of the play with opulent food. Two ornate chairs set on a slightly raised dais, facing the audience, and two straight-backed chairs flank the table, leaving their occupants to stare at one another. Hagan creates a pub and Elizabeth's tiny, isolated home downstage with just a few simple furniture pieces.

Rachel Lambert's costumes layer the characters up to give them space to strip down as things get revealing between them. Add to this Randy Rozler's truly impressive properties design, as well as the eerie music and sound by Petter Wahlback, and you have the potential for a complex, compelling story about gender, class, and a community on the brink of disaster.

In terms of performances, there is no question that Carson had a clear vision that the cast embraced wholeheartedly. Julian Hester is dazzling as Scratch. His feel for Silverman's dialogue is impeccable. He carries much of the show's humor, drawing not just loud laughs but also a regular stream of satisfied chuckles. Just as important, Hester is also excellent in Scratch's lonely, vulnerable moments.

Kristin Collins as Elizabeth Sawyer, the supposed witch whose liaison with the previous Lord of the Castle was enough to see her exiled to the margins of the town, is equal to Hester's performance. With skill, Collins plays weariness, wariness, and a wistful longing to be charmed once more by the devil who has come to want the one soul he cannot seem to buy.

The story that unfolds up at the castle is almost entirely separate from the interactions between Scratch and Elizabeth, save for a few awkward scenes at the end where Sir Arthur Banks (Todd Wojcik) barely tolerates his son Cuddy (Declan Collins), who is unlikely in the extreme to produce an heir, and forms a close bond with the low-born Frank Thorney (Ernest Henton). Much earlier in the play, Scratch has handily deprived each of the two younger men of their souls in exchange for Frank's death (Cuddy's wish, born of a confused blend of jealousy and sexual attraction to his rival) and being named the heir to land, title and castle.

These actors are good, though Declan Collins struggles a bit early on, as the material establishing him as a closeted gay man is simply rather awkward. Wojcik's blustering comedy is engaging, and the sorrow he shows as Banks for his late wife is touching. Henton is a powerful, charismatic figure and his performance echoes Hester's in interesting ways. As Winnifred, the castle servant who has secretly married Frank and is pregnant with his child, Ariana Lopez similarly models her performance after Kristin Collins's Elizabeth. The work is very good across the board, but strong performances can't ultimately bridge the strange distance between the two storylines.

Witch runs through December 3, 2023, at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit or call 773-697-3830.