‘Witch’ Is a Stitch

Renaissance offers darkly funny, episodic update of 17th century fable pitting the devil against a witch.

By - Oct 23rd, 2023 01:17 pm
Marti Gobel as Elizabeth Sawyer (The Witch) and Neil Brookshire as Scratch in Renaissance Theaterworks' WITCH. Photo by Ross Zentner.

Marti Gobel as Elizabeth Sawyer (The Witch) and Neil Brookshire as Scratch in Renaissance Theaterworks’ WITCH. Photo by Ross Zentner.

Timed to be presented around Halloween, with a lobby staff abounding in costumes, Witch through Nov. 12 is not a ghoulish attraction despite its title. Its main appeal is six solid actors familiar to Milwaukee audiences powering an inventive but uneven dark comedy that marries history and modern observations.

Playwright Jen Silverman may be a new name hereabouts, but her clever dialogue and mordant sense of humor have gone international. Here she fancifully marries a 17th century fable about Scratch, the devil, to our current rhetoric of despair and use of vulgarities.

Her 2018 play has loosely cobbled together multiple themes into one – and this production may be taking her ideas further, informed by the feminist sensibilities for which Renaissance Theaterworks is known. But the main reality at the company’s new home, the Next Act Theater, 255 S. Water St., is that dramatically it has arrived in the top league in care and technical expertise. Director and company founder Suzan Fete still needs to tighten up the approach and understand that half the audience will appreciate the measured acting approach and the other half may get a bit restless.

It starts as a simple drama/comedy of familiar temptation as Scratch – played as an affable charismatic young man by Neil Brookshire – offers the local aristocrats his purchase of their souls to gain a fortune or kill a rival, pointing out all the successful deeds he and his fellow minions have done over the centuries.

Then Scratch becomes confounded and fascinated by the local witch in this 1600s township who weaves no spells, but scares the citizenry because she speaks honestly and in unemotional terms, excellently declaimed and embodied by actress Marti Gobel. Scratch becomes enamored and winds up pursuing her as an equal – in modern idioms despite the time frame.

Which is one thread of the piece. Another involves the castle household of a demanding, constantly eating and abrasive lord, delightfully brayed by actor Reese Madigan. There’s his ignored son and easy Scratch victim, a stage hurricane of eye-rolling gripes in the hands of James Carrington, plus the would-be heir to the castle, a handsome self-absorbed social climber portrayed with nasty certitude by Joe Picchetti.

And there is also the maid running around the dinner table who plays a central role in later acting explosions and commentary on fickle fate. Eva Nimmer seamlessly handles the quiet and then the eruptions of the part.

Gobel and Brookshire are also standouts in their slow building scenes of mutual recognition. So is Carrington who need not indulge in so much mugging, so convincing is his natural stage power.

Other theme developments along the way culminate in an absorbing stage fight. Add some lessons in how Scratch should adjust his customary trickery to cater to modern feminism. There is also discussion of how fate’s intercession (in the form of devil or saint) does not reflect the reality of life. In fact, we may need a timeout from all the disasters created by Scratch or mankind’s normal behavior.

The play makes such points in clever reversals that are not always as dramatic as the message intended, which leads to the play developing physical explosions to carry us beyond philosophizing. Some of the humor is meant to startle us with a modern phrase tossed into an old legend.

Fete provides some nifty flows of motion, but has not solved the episodic nature of the tale. There are some fun stage setups to watch in the dark, but too many of them despite the cast and helpers’ choreography. There is some capable use of props and costumes, plus an interesting shadow effect off the side walls by veteran Milwaukee-based lighting designer Noele Stollmack. The play requires an audience open to its thoughtfulness more than its macabre atmospherics.

Witch Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blogs here and here.

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