Mount Vernon at the heart of Baltimore City is home to many fabulous jewels. One of these, tucked away below street level, is the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre. Distance-wise, it’s hardly a far journey. But temporally and culturally, we are a long way from home. Or are we?
Spotlighters Theatre uses its characteristically cozy space in imaginative ways to pull off wonderful theatrics within the confines of its triple limitations of vertical and horizontal compression, four massive corner-posts anchoring the 13’ x 13’ stage, and audience seated on all sides. Since 1967, Spots has specialized in clever innovations and a balance of edgy or dark horse shows with beloved chestnuts.
One such dark horse currently running is Vinegar Tom. The script, firmly supportive of Season 57’s Strong Voices theme, is somewhat less eloquent than it might be. Reliant on a call-and-response based structure, which is designed to (and does) provoke audience reflection during (as opposed to after) the performance, it deliberately separates the viewer from the immediacy of the show’s action at regular intervals. Set in the 17th century (the 1600s, if you need a math assist), Vinegar Tom is a “Play With Music,” which is to say the musical numbers are doing something other than driving the action. Written in 1976 by English playwright Caryl Churchill and inspired by the women’s rights movements of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it’s rather disturbing how pertinent it yet is.
Director Erin Riley makes some well-considered choices for this production, particularly in casting and working with actors to create offstage action. The cast is more ethnically inclusive than would have been accurate for the time in rural England, where it is set, which I find encouraging or at least hopeful.
Each of the actors is imminently watchable for one reason or another. Lead performer Lanoree Blake, playing Alice, doesn’t seem at first to have a particularly sympathetic role, yet we root for her and her character anyway, as she’s a terrifically confident, engaging performer.
As the scenes progress, it is not immediately evident how the characters relate to one another, which provides tension and interest. Nicole Mullins as Margery is physically and vocally expressive, and convincingly demonstrates the sort of smug self-interest of a certain contemporary demographic. As Betty, Marela Minosa pulls off petulance and privilege, though her complaints are the very crux of the show’s premise. The fluid features of Tami Moon, portraying Ellen, allow her internal conflicts to play across her face, which is fascinating to behold. Tony Koral-Evans embodies Joan, a brassy, brash character, and gives her depth enough to prevent Joan becoming an archetype rather than a person. Jennifer Hasselbusch plays Susan as a weak-willed individual with just enough gumption to make things horrible for herself and everyone around her. In the sweetly malevolent role of Goody, Margaret Condon delivers a monologue best described as creepily compelling. She’s quite frightening, actually.
The male characters, meanwhile, have less active roles, and serve as instigation or turning points of the plot. Whether Churchill’s writing or Riley’s direction deserves credit for pigeonholing the men with one-note character motivations is unclear, but it’s a sharp contrast, and quite effective.
There are an assortment of accents used, helping to indicate social status and levels of personal dignity among the characters. Everyone is perfectly audible and all have clear diction. The musical pieces, however, prove to be a particular strength in this production of Vinegar Tom. Amplification, using a standing microphone, is clean and clear, and allows full comprehension of Churchill’s explicit lyrics. They’ve been set to new music devised by Musical Director, Composer, Musician and Vocalist Parker Bailey Steven on electric guitar. The Punk aesthetic of her music is a brilliant expression of the anger that the women portrayed in the show are unable to constructively articulate. Originally intended as a response by a contemporary woman, or women, to scenes previously enacted, in the hands and mouth of Parker Bailey Steven, it also becomes a reverberation through the ages of the shared experience of being “othered.”
Lighting Designer Lana Riggins does nothing flashy with her lighting plan, allowing the exquisitely precise timing of the light cues to provide the required levels of drama. Set design is largely done with fabulous paint, evocative rather than explicit. Costuming, designed by Kate Smith-Morse, is serviceable and occasionally beautiful, with some exquisite subtleties to add depth and nuance to the characters and their social positions, particularly in regards to footwear.
This show, obscure as it may be, is amazingly relevant and is deserving of large, fully engaged audiences for its entire run. The themes are ones we need to be discussing often and loudly. As a theatrical script, it may fall short of brilliant, but as a protest piece, it’s dead accurate. Anyone with a conscience and sympathy towards women ought to catch Vinegar Tom before it slips away.
Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, with one 15-minute intermission