Regional Reviews: Las Vegas
When a group of young girls in the theocratic Massachusetts Bay Colony are caught engaging in a satanic ritual in the woods of Salem, they conspire to avoid punishment by claiming that others in town are engaging in witchcraft. The self-important Reverend Hale seizes the opportunity to enhance his own position by taking the girls at their word. Once the arrests begin, other Salemites soon join in the accusations, pointing fingers at their fellow citizens in order to erase debts, settle grudges, and seize their neighbors' land and goods. Led by Deputy Governor Danforth, a kangaroo court offers the accused two choices: confess and go to jail; or deny the accusations and be hanged. Not surprisingly, many confess, lending credibility to the false accusations and the corrupted legal system. The first to be condemned are society's outcaststhe nonconformists, the homeless, the poor, and those who are simply dislikedbut their disposal simply fuels the tribunal to grind inexorably forward until the streets of Salem are filled with parentless children and untended livestock.
Miller's play, originally produced in 1953, remains powerful and timeless. Unfortunately, it receives an uneven production under Darren Weller's direction. According to the program notes, Weller has reconceived the play by setting it in "an unknown future ... a resource-poor, decaying urban environment in which different ideologies fight for dominance." However, one would never guess this without the notes. The only hint of a futuristic setting is a brief montage of empty streets and bleak storefronts projected on the two side screens at the start of the play, and never seen again. The script itself remains firmly rooted in an isolated 17th century agrarian village, where characters fight over acreage, cows, and timber rights, everyone is a Christian fundamentalist, and information can be shared only by walking door to door. There is nothing futuristic or urban in sight, and no "different ideologies" in evidence.
Weller's high concept permeates Joe Garcia Miranda's set designa few pieces of generic office furniture, some metal bed frames, and an overhead grid. The effect is low-budget rather than futuristic. After Elizabeth Proctor kneads bread dough, she sets it aside to risein a filing cabinet. When the overhead grid finally descends, it adds no drama, because its function remains unclear. This makeshift approach to scenery gives the impression of a student workshop rather than a fully staged production.
Gabrielle Lewis's deliberately drab costumes are non-period but hardly futuristic, and they are anything but consistent in style. The judicial authorities wear natty suits, the girls wear an odd assortment of shapeless dresses and smocks, and the farmers' attire could be Goodwill cast-offs. Looking like the poorest of the Three Kings in a Christmas crèche, Reverend Hale sports a cummerbund and suspenders topped off with a faded version of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Rivaling Hale for the most bizarre appearance, Tituba wears a long blonde wig (which she at one point removes, for no apparent reason).
Out of the large cast, only two performers fully succeed in bringing Miller's troubled characters to life. As John Proctor, the adulterous farmer who sacrifices himself to save his wife and to reveal the trials as a sham, Nate Marble is clearly at ease on stage and ably embodies the character's moral complexity. As Proctor's nemesis Deputy Governor Danforth, Delius Doherty has a commanding stage presence. A trained musical theatre performer with impressive Broadway credits (including five years in The Book of Mormon), Doherty proves that he is an outstanding dramatic actor as well. When these two are on stage, the play crackles to life. Because Proctor and Danforth dominate the courtroom scenes, these are the high point of the evening and a master class in acting technique.
Many of the other actors, while talented, are miscast, under-trained, or under-directed. As the Reverend Parris, Johann Heske inexplicably affects a southern accent. As the chief accuser Abigail Williams, Aviana Glover (who has done excellent work in other productions) starts off at full tilt, with neck outstretched and eyes popping, and her affect never varies. Both Juliana Renee Martin as Mary Warren and Bobby Lang as Reverend Hale make a good effort, but fall short of being truly convincing. Tola Lawal brings dignity to Elizabeth Proctor, but her performance is so understated that the character remains a cypher. Naturalistic performers Joan Mullaney and Sherri Brewer seem to have wandered in from a different show. Gail K. Romero holds the stage better as Giles Corey, but Weller's decision to cast two women (Brewer and Romero) as male characters is puzzling. Because both characters are convention-bound husbands concerned about their wives, maleness is essential to the roles, yet neither actress adopts a male voice or manner. Even Romero's strong performance cannot overcome this distraction. (In contrast, Noah Keeling as Tituba is convincingly female.) Gender-bending can work well in some plays and some productions, but where, as here, both the play and the production are otherwise grounded in realism, it simply detracts.
Despite the intimacy of the black box theatre, many of the actors fail to project well. The traverse staging doesn't help. At any given time, several characters have their backs to a large part of the audience; in those moments, all but Marble and Doherty are virtually inaudible. And during much of the early exposition, the actors must compete with a noisy soundtrack representing the babble from the curious townsfolk gathered downstairs in the Parris home. For audience members seated near the loudspeakers, this noise completely drowns out the actors. The piped-in hubbub is unnecessary; the dialogue already makes clear that Reverend Parris feels the pressure of the anxious assemblage.
Apart from the Proctor-Danforth scenes, the most engaging scenes are two that convey a moody sense of choreography: the atmospheric opening scene in the woods, performed through mime and singing; and the courtroom confrontation between the girls and Mary Warren, in which the girls mimic Mary's words and gestures in eerie unity, as though possessed. These scenes show that Weller can evoke strong work from an ensemble; it's a shame that the rest of the production doesn't rise to this level.
There might be room for a high-concept production of The Crucible, but it would probably require more script changes than the playwright's estate would permit. Where, as here, the concept is relegated to set, props and costumes, the production simply becomes schizophrenic. After John and Elizabeth discuss John's long day laboring in the fields, he sits down to his dinnera tiny cereal bowl covered in tin foil, from which he digs out a few invisible morsels with his fingers. Is this astronaut food for the down-on-your-luck? At the very least, it is an acting challenge that didn't have to be.
The Crucible, through October 28, 2018, at the Black Box Theatre at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas NV. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 pm; Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are currently sold out, but check for updated availability at www.unlv.edu/nct/ or 702-895-ARTS.