The Wandering Theatre Company’s movement/dance-infused ensemble piece The Afflicted follows a Writer’s (Joelle Golda) process to compile research about the girls who ignited the Salem Witch trials. As plays about writing a research paper go, it’s pretty engaging. But is it engaging enough to pick over the 124 other options at Fringe? It’s time to put The Afflicted on trial.
First of all, didn’t Arthur Miller already cover all of this? Not exactly. Wandering Theatre Company winningly reinvents the wheel by shifting focus from the tribulations John Proctor and a bunch of old white dead dudes, to the lesser-known (and far more compelling) young women of Salem; and if there’s one thing any parent, high-school educator or former teen boy knows… teenage girls can be pretty scary sometimes.
Writer/Director Natalie Villamonte Zito conjures some moments of brilliance through stage picture and ensemble movement (I will forever have nightmares about the contorted “possessed” girls in one sequence). Her Stoppard-esque script seamlessly blends contemporary and Puritan-era action. For better and worse, the entire production has a collegiate feel to it, which works more in favor of the actors playing teenage girls than those playing “adults.” Libby McKnight stands out in a thrillingly wry performance as Mary Walcott, and Roni Laytin is downright angelic as Betty Parris. Claudia Givings, though not given much dimension in the text as Tituba, proves that she is a beautiful and mesmerizing dancer who should develop her own solo show for next Fringe. Christian Steckel’s sophisticated lighting design defies all logic of Fringe production. Perhaps he sold his soul to the Devil?
Then there are issues. First and foremost, an ill-conceived (and executed) sound design nearly torpedoes the entire production with painfully loud levels, periodic buzzing, and some poor audio mixing/transitions. The cluttered set illustrates yet again that “less is more” at fringe. Zito also makes a number of directorial choices that fall flat in a big way. At one intense moment, the stage washes over in red, the gates of hell open and out pours a pack of demonic… rabbits? Then at the climactic moment of the show, the afflicted young women break out into what I can only describe as “Jazzercize.” This moment is unfortunately timed right after The Writer proclaims “This is f-ing absurd! This is all f-ing absurd.”
So what’s the verdict? There’s a lot of mitigating evidence here, and the fact that tips the scale in favor Wandering Theatre for me is that the show clocks in at just under one hour (as opposed to the 90 minutes listed in the Fringe catalogue). In my book, that makes it worth a stop for anyone who is fascinated by this period of American History. A lot of hard work has gone into this production, and this ensemble company shows promise. It also provides a perfect companion piece to outrageous D.C. State Player’s Present Agamemnon, also appearing at GALA, so make a night of it. No doubt Mr. Bollocks and Mr. Sweetbottom will be in the audience taking some notes.
Running time: 55 minutes
The Afflicted plays through July 21, 2013 at GALA Hispanic Theatre at Tivoli – 3333 14th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For performance times and to purchase tickets, visit the show’s Capital Fringe page.