The Crucible

Also: The Elsinore Diaries.

The Crucible

Chamber Theater; ends Sun., Sept. 4

History repeats, and what's bad for the republic is, well, pretty damn good for art—tyranny is one of theater's more reliable muses. The civic gutting and Constitution-shredding perpetrated by the current administration has injected a lot of dog-eared material with an almost steroidal jolt of relevance. Some of it, like Arthur Miller's The Crucible, presented here by Bad Monkey Productions in their debut staging, suddenly appears so topical it chills the bones. The microcosm of Miller's Salem, initially a stand-in for Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his shenanigans with HUAC, sounds mighty familiar once again. By the time deputy governor Danforth, played with relish by Richard Hesik, utters the fateful line, "Either a person is with this court or against it," the temptation to laugh is strong. It's almost too much—when reality becomes a cheap parody of the tragedy onstage, society is deeply out of joint.

As though resting on the laurels of a wonderfully timely choice in dramatic material, or perhaps apprehensive of botching that choice, the production plays the whole thing straight as a board. It's probably the best way to go, though a no-frills, no-nonsense reading presents problems of its own. The permutations of this type of quasi-political fable—in which the citizenry of a town is torn asunder by mass hysteria driven by buried guilt, collective denial, political paranoia, religious hypocrisy, and the displaced projections of a very secular evil—are infinite. But the thing about Miller's version is that it goes straight to the historical source of modern scapegoating, the Salem Witch Trials. This removes some of the mystique that can be supplied by disguising the theme in genre garb (as in something like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers); the text and subtext here become one. In a sense, the cat is out of the bag in this play, so it better be a pretty convincing cat. A big, scary cat.

If there's nothing spectacular or surprising about this particular production, it nonetheless does a good job getting its message across while retaining most of the dramatic oomph of the material. First-time director Jennessa Richert displays a deft hand in managing the exceedingly large cast of characters and the often intricate storyline. She's unrushed, allowing the action to unfold with a sort of languorous menace. Even during the play's more frantic moments, Richert's blocking is restrained and assured. The scenes of the trial, for instance, are almost panoramic in dimension, with the accusers and the accused separated by a seeming abyss, granting the moment a heightened air of anxiety.

Among a talented cast are a couple of standout performances, and they are exactly the roles that should stand out: Cathleen O'Mally (as Abigail Williams), Elissa Walstead (as Ann Putnam) and Heather Poulsen (as Elizabeth Proctor) are all fantastic, each bringing a level of intensity and complexity that help raise the evening a bit above the level of mere routine. RICHARD MORIN

The Elsinore Diaries

Center House Theatre; ends Sun., Aug. 28

Though many playwrights and filmmakers have already messed around with Hamlet far more than poor Ophelia ever did—the high-water mark, of course, being Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead—Frank Lawler, Daniel Flint, and Jason Marr make a decent case that the Great Dane is a source of infinite jest. The writing trio tickles Shakespeare's sullen hero for about two hours, and while the mischievousness is overlong and often underplayed in this Harlequin production, their comic notions are entertaining enough to rouse at least a cheerful laugh or two.

The Elsinore Diaries, like Stoppard's play before it, revisits Hamlet with a skewed point of view. In this case, we're watching events unfold in Denmark through the courtesy of a news team's roving Historian (Frank Lawler, perfectly rattling out every sober British cadence as in those peerless Monty Python spoofs of BBC solemnity). While he wanders in and out with late-breaking items, we're also privy to press conferences, newsreels (video designer Jill Carter amusingly utilizes stock silent-film footage), and personal interviews in which the ever-evolving tragedy's main characters roguishly reward our memory of the original play by airing their grievances. Ophelia (Sarah Lesley), billed as Hamlet's "special friend," complains that all reporters want to know is whether the prince is a codpiece or loincloth kind of guy; the Player King (Lawler again—and good) fears his acting career will be ruined by Hamlet's rewrite of The Murder of Gonzago; Hamlet's sadistic former tutor (Jimmy Gilletti) at Wittenberg University fondles fretful, alcoholic Horatio (Daniel E. Flint) and carps that the Dane was "alvays vis zee sarcasm und zee qvestioning of authority." Hamlet (Casey D. Brown), meanwhile, can't quite perfect his "too, too solid flesh" lament, resorting to pounding out the iambic pentameter on his chest.

So, there it is—reverent irreverence, in generous portions. Although the constant wheeling out of interviewees from the same spots stage right and left becomes monotonous, director Scot Whitney has an obvious grasp of how such cheek should play out. The problem is getting his cast, all of whom are game but many of whom are green, to execute that knowledge. The divide between the truly deft and the simply determined means the show's pacing often needs a kick in the pantaloons; this thing should be running at an hour and a half, tops, with no intermission and little time to cavil about the script's expected groaners. Brown, rather than completely lampooning Hamlet's gravity, sometimes seems to want us to know he could successfully play his part in a serious staging—not quite the right approach for a production also highlighting an endless series of silly, borderline offensive gay jokes (the best of which is Gilletti's mincing, pressed-for-time Spanish caterer Osric, who realizes which meats must coldly furnish forth the marriage tables and sighs, "I gonna have to use the leftovers from the King's funeral.")

Aside from Lawler, Kevin Hyatt is the true riot here. He has fun with Gilletti in their roles as feuding German phrenologists R & G, respectively, and his gossipy, contemplative Gravedigger has the casual mournfulness and mirth that indicates where the play, and the production, could have gone if it had aimed higher. There's true cleverness to the idea that the supposedly dimwitted Polonius (a shape-shifting Flint) was the real brains behind the throne, yet the show isn't sure if it can carry anarchy and commentary and still deliver the laughs. It's at its best when Hyatt ambles out to reflect on the careless, constant changing of the guard.

"They'd been playin' hide the scepter for years," he observes after Gertrude's hasty marriage to Claudius. "And you know how she loves a party." STEVE WIECKING

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