With an astute, quality production of Witch, its latest Bold New Works for Intimate Stages creation, the Creative Cauldron continues to show what a nimble, un-fossilized theater company can do, even on a smallish budget and in a tight space.
With Witch, freshly created by Matthew Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith, Creative Cauldron (Falls Church, VA) once again meets its moniker; that of a heated cauldron, rather than a frozen over suburban venue producing the tried-and-true with titles everyone knows. The determined Cauldron folk seem very willing and able to capture the current cultural zeitgeist with their production choices.
So, first off, hats off to Laura Connors Hull, Creative Cauldron producing director for masterminding the Bold New Works series, then locating continuing funding. For those steeped in the business side of creating professional theater, we are very aware that this is no easy feat for a 90+ seat theater venue in these times when government funding for the arts has become soft, subscriptions sales might be the past way of doing business, and there are so many places for those, say under 40, to enjoy the arts and entertainment beyond sometimes sitting in a dark theater venue.
If you are unfamiliar with the Cauldron’s Bold New Works for Intimate Stages series, it a five-year commissioning project in which Creative Cauldron will produce an original world premiere musical for five seasons. The musicals are written by Matt Conner (music and lyrics) and Stephen Gregory Smith (book and lyrics). Both men are well known to DC theater-goers, especially those who are regular theater-goers to Signature Theatre. Let me add one note I find quite unique from my many years covering theater in the area, the original Bold New Works productions are available for licensing.
OK now, let’s get to the production of Witch. Its synopsis as taken from Cauldron marketing material: “From the dawn of time, women have been demonized, feared, and objectified whenever their power challenged the traditional order. Weaving a thread from the Salem Witch trials through modern day politics, this world premiere musical examines the complex and compelling stories of women who’ve been labeled as witches throughout the centuries.”
The Cauldron’s production of Witch has a seven-member, all-female cast. The cast is multi-generational and diverse. The seven cast members represent three different families taking part in the Women’s March of January 2017. The production brims with 13 new songs that provide historical commentary about women who were maligned and mistreated over the past centuries. And were called witches to boot.
But Witch is no dusty historical dramatic screed. It is not Guerilla Theater either, even with its scenes that have some crafty associations with the musical’s namesake, the late 1960’s Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.
What Conner and Smith have done is to connect the past to current times, not with diatribes aimed at the now easy target of toxic masculinity, but rather Witch is like a rippling river flowing with white caps delineating hidden rocks and shoals. Witch is sly and encouraging in its outlook. It is has a subversive mien that reflects an inter-generational schooling of older generations by three wise teenage daughters; daughters with social media savvy ways to gain adherents to a cause. The daughters are open, while their mothers often enough can become stuck in quicksand or see the world looking to the past for guidance until they are struck with their daughter’s lighting, energy, and acceptance.
The daughters are also not jaded. They are not desperate even as they deal with the sexism and lookism and racism of current times. They come off as patient and even parenting of their moms. They have a whole world before them. Even a mother snapping at a daughter saying, “You will eat, when we get equality,” doesn’t faze the daughter.
And the diversity of the Witch cast provides some sharp ways to take on issues of race and perspective. For instance, there is this rejoinder on the possibility of being arrested while protesting. “White women don’t get arrested.”
As I took in the show, it sunk into me this way: The daughters reminded me of my own daughter’s way to get me to understand that my old Boomer ways of protest were no longer so valid. Sure, we agreed on the content but getting there, well that was a way different story. She would stand there, hands on her hips, eyes narrowed, lips pursed, breathing slowly. Then saying in the longest way possible the word, “Daddy” followed by, “that was then, things have moved on. So, let me show you about how to text.”
Reading Stephen Gregory Smith’s program notes I was struck with his words: “I saw that the aim of the show wasn’t the women of the past, but the women working towards our future.” He also wrote that over time the musical became one more of “love and connection.”
Witch is 70 minutes of a small home-grown gem that flies by with its sweeping views and thirteen new musical numbers. Does it have some short-comings? Sure, as most things do, if we look hard enough to find them. There are some issues that are gently touched upon and then just left. It was if they are meant for a chat after the production. These issues included who one can love or go to a bar with. What does it mean to be regularly fired from a job? How can a woman come to terms with an unexpected pregnancy? The Cauldron folk left them unresolved or not deeply explained as if a parent could go home with their child and discuss the issues, not have answers given to them.
Kudos to all associated with the Cauldron’s Witch including the top-notch cast of Iyona Blake (mother), Samaria Dellorso (daughter), Susan Derry (mother), Florence Lacey (grandmother), Sophia Manicone (daughter), Catherine Purcell (mother), and Arianna Vargas (daughter). They are an un-homogenized cast with marvelous chemistry and voices that are radiant without amplification. And to Warren Freeman (music supervisor/orchestrations) a tip of the hat to him and the fine lively band of keyboard, guitar, violin, and percussion.
If you see Witch with your teenage children, whether girls or boys, do let me know what is your take away, please. Let me hazard this as well, given the walkability to local eateries, walk-up traffic would not be unexpected for Witch.
Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.
Review: ‘Witch’ at Creative Cauldron by Julia Exline