PTP/NYC’s double bill of Howard Barker’s 1992 Judith: A Parting from the Body and Caryl Churchill’s 1976 Vinegar Tom is a dark, unsettling, charged evening of theater. Both plays present grim worlds full of suffering that range from the baroque to the painfully ordinary. Both plays present strong, fierce women backed into impossible corners by desperate circumstances, some of whom do terrible things to survive–and some of whom cannot survive. And both plays end in places even bleaker than where they started, at least for most of the characters. Fortunately, Barker and Churchill are both fine writers, leavening what could be unremitting darkness with savagely precise flights of language, strong character portraits and flashes of black humor.
Judith tackles the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, a story often depicted by Renaissance visual artists (most famously Donatello and Artimesia Gentileschi), but less frequently seen in literary or dramatic genres. On the night before a battle, Judith, a widow of Israel, comes to offer herself to the Assyrian general Holofernes, whose armies are poised to invade her town the following morning. Alone and musing on the inescapability of death, Holofernes is willing, if not eager, to be seduced (mentally or physically), though not to be loved. Seemingly wracked by indecision, Judith nonetheless takes strength from her maidservant and convinces Holofernes they could love each other–though it’s unclear whether she’s trying to serve his needs or soften him up so she can plead him not to attack her city. As it turns out, neither: it’s all a ploy to allow her to get close enough to him while he sleeps to behead him and avoid the battle entirely.
Barker can be didactic, or pointlessly philosophical, but the games of power and intimacy played by Holofernes (Alex Draper) and Judith (Pamela Gray) have a sick fascination, especially once you add the running commentary by Judith’s servant (Patricia Buckley). And once the piece turns first violent, then sinks deeper into the grotesque, it only gets more engrossing – and more off-putting. While both Draper and Gray relish their combat and their constant one-upping of each other verbally, it’s Buckley who turns in the strongest performance, giving what could be a colorless character both a steely core of decisiveness and a wryly subversive attitude to her supposed superiors.
Vinegar Tom is set in a medieval English village troubled by witches – which means, to a modern audience, that people have an ordinary range of troubles (a sick cow, butter that won’t churn, a sore hand) and there are a few unruly and free-spirited women around, on whom it’s convenient to blame these problems. There’s a local “cunning woman” / herbalist / midwife, Ellen (Lucy Faust); a young unwed mother, Alice (Tara Giordano), known as the local slut; Alice’s sour-tempered, alcoholic mother, Joan (Nesba Crenshaw); the local nobleman’s daughter, Betty (Caitlyn Meagher), who is trying to avoid an unwanted marriage; and even Alice’s friend Susan (Chelsea Melone), a young wife and mother who gets caught up in the frenzy as a result of her ambivalence about a third pregnancy in barely three years.
The play hasn’t dated well, especially Churchill’s Brechtian device of interstitial feminist songs that have a very 1970s consciousness-raising feel to them (though they’re often still slyly funny). But the narrative still carries a lot of power to shock: the sheer ordinariness of the witches, the ease with which they are condemned, and the rapidity with which institutional power mobilizes to strike down potential threats.
Strong performances go a long way here, especially Tara Giordano as Alice, desperately trying to make a new path for herself out of sheer force of will; Lucy Faust as Ellen, the cunning woman who tries to make herself indispensable and invisible at the same time; and Kathleen Wise as Margery, the townswoman who first cries witch. She’s desperately scared of losing what little she has, and her fear blinds her to the terrible rift her actions will tear in the community.
The entire ensemble, under the direction of Cheryl Faraone, really makes one feel both the pettiness of the offenses for which the witches face death and the genuine terror felt by the rest of the community (mostly represented here by Margery and her husband, Jack, who also has a sexual relationship with Alice). By constructing an environment where almost every scene is surveilled by another character, covertly or blatantly (sometimes other townspeople, sometimes the three singers in modern dress), Faraone also captures the tightness of the community, for good and for ill.
While the two pieces have certain thematic similarities, they don’t shed as much light on each other as they could, especially with different directors, a mostly different cast, and even a completely different use of the space (Hallie Zieselman’s set really only comes into its own for Vinegar Tom). It also feels strange to have one piece done in strong dialect (a regional British accent) and the other without despite its strongly British slang. Still, both plays do have relevant things to say about power, authority, and ultimately human frailty.