The surrealist, sometimes anarchic style of British playwright Caryl Churchill’s prose invites a lot of directorial interpretation and creativity from the theater artists who’ve been drawn to her mesmerizing work for the better half of a century. And yet, I don’t think I’ve witnessed a more seamless marriage of her words and a thematic overlay than what’s on display in director Clare Brennan’s 90s riot grrrl-inspired take on Vinegar Tom with Red Theater.
Vinegar Tom Through 11/20: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, Edge Theater Off Broadway, 1133 W. Catalpa, redtheater.org, pay what you can
Punk, for all its thrown elbows and sharp accessories and associations with sexual and social-political fringes, is a deeply vulnerable art form that provides stark tonal contrast with hushed 17th-century austerity while essentially mirroring the era’s gothic extremity. English peasants Alice (Sarah Wisterman) and her alcoholic widow mother (Madeline Bernhard) fall under the suspicion of their comparatively wealthy neighbors (Josh Razavi and Mindy Shore) after the latter are beset by a series of financial misfortunes.
There are accused witches and subsequent trials, but it would be misleading to lump Vinegar Tom into the subgenre of Witch Trial paranoia plays, as the persecution story serves mostly as a melody to riff on to the tune of 70s feminism, made pointedly and discomfortingly relevant again post-Roe. Traditional scenes of realism are interwoven with soliloquies (including a particularly haunting passage by Hannah Antman) and original Guttersluts–inspired music by Max Cohen (bass) and Roy Gonzalez (guitar), performed alongside Tom Ronningen on drums, with each actor stepping out of character to take their hand at the mike.
That’s a big ask of even the most multidisciplinary artists, and the vocals sometimes have a more Battle of the Bands feel than those of the hardcore shows they’re referencing, but the youthful, DIY-ness of it only adds to the crusty authenticity of it all. And given how overtly Churchill’s work touches on aging, a broader diversity of ages among the ensemble would probably drive the impact in harder, but that doesn’t take away from the cleverness and visceral punch of Red Theater’s production. A big part of its success lies with the band itself, which brings the gnarly enthusiasm of a garage show (Cohen whipping her hair around, Ronningen sporting a relentless ear-to-ear grin, Gonzalez playing guitar like he’s firing off an M60) to a traditional blackbox venue like The Edge Off Broadway.