In association with the Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater, New York-based theater troupe Bedlam explodes Arthur Miller’s classic drama "The Crucible" with a chaotic and dynamic physical life that turns the emotional turmoil of this play inside out — and it’s surprisingly hilarious. This production targets the absurdity of the witch trials (and perhaps their uncanny similarities with real life), with specific physical scoring, rhythmization of the dialogue, and a shift to a dry, biting tone. It’s so absurd, it’s scary; so horrifying, it’s funny. Although ridiculous, Bedlam’s production honors the heart-sinking dread that Miller originally intended.
The show’s expressionist world is in the same vein as Bedlam’s past productions. Bedlam is known for its physically dynamic and wildly inventive shows that challenge the preciousness of classics such as Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan.”
Bedlam’s artistic director Eric Tucker, who often wears more than one hat, directed the production and plays a chillingly clean-cut Reverend Hale who seems a little too comfortable with his task of extricating the town of accused witches. His short-sleeved button-up and gelled, side-parted hair calls back to the 1950s McCarthyism that inspired Miller to write “The Crucible.”
This time, I heard “The Crucible” in a way I never have before. Tucker’s ability to shift the original dramatic tone to take on a more ironic, sharp-tongued resonance is quite astounding. And the entire ensemble is right there with him. Dayenne CB Walters shapeshifts from Tituba to Rebecca Nurse to Francis Nurse. She has a knack for adopting a new physicality in just moments and establishing an intricate emotional landscape for each character. Randolph Curtis Rand commits unapologetically to the caustic yet silly tone. His Reverend Parris is just plain fed up with his exhausting niece.
In Elizabeth Proctor lies the heart that insists there is still virtue out there. Susannah Millonzi’s Elizabeth is captivating as she confronts her husband’s adultery and fights to stay afloat as her world shatters around her. She exists at the heartbreaking intersection of exhaustion and resilience. When she’s the only one left, among the wreckage of an unhinged American horror story, she clings to her goodness.
As the world begins to unravel, clothing, furniture, and loose documents are strewn across the stage physicalizing the moral catastrophe at hand. Lindsay Genevieve Fuori’s set design is a playground for the ensemble. It begins tidy, but ultimately gets flung about. The furniture, resembling that of a scrappy doll’s house, is tucked into a rectangular room that appears to be carved into the wall of the theater. Fuori’s set gave me that unsettling feeling you get from examining the mundane. Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” came to mind as the lights came up on the first stage picture.
The inevitable plunge into pandemonium mirrors the lawlessness of our own justice system where admission of guilt outranks the truth (the number of wrongful convictions in America is staggering). I wish I could say that a system in complete shambles, dominated by men, governed by fear, and masked by a claimed desire for greater good was an unfamiliar concept. “The Crucible” inflates the circumstances to larger-than-life proportions, showing us how absurd our reality truly is.
On the night I attended, the energy of the cast didn’t falter in the three hours of tumult that unfolded on stage. Miller’s drama is heavy on the dialogue, especially those courtroom interrogations. Yet, the cast manages to keep the momentum throughout the trial. John Proctor, played by Ryan Quinn, chases Mary Warren, played by the precocious Caroline Grogan, around the stage, chairs are stacked on tables, the girls stand on the furniture, and the men all end up on the floor. Although wickedly funny — excuse the puns — I felt a little devilish laughing out loud as Reverend Parris crawls across the floor while questioning his niece Abigail about her illicit activities in the forest.
This production captures the inescapable panic and guilt that drives every character’s actions. And the audience is just as exposed and subject to ridicule. John R. Malinowski’s lighting design leaves us unprotected, often illuminating the audience in a stark light, a most unnatural feeling in a theater where we are used to sitting in darkness, separated from the action on stage. Joshua Wolf Coleman’s Danforth keeps us in the corner of his eye at all times. We aren’t even safe from the calculated Abigail played by Truett Felt, as she turns a flashlight on us saying, “The world is full of hypocrites.”
“The Crucible” warns us that nothing is more contagious than fear; it spreads like wildfire. The play becomes even more untamed, invading the hallways of the theater and the space below our seats, proving that what you can’t see is the most palpable fear of all.
Bedlam's "The Crucible" continues at the Central Square Theater through Oct. 20.