From the Salem trials to an indictment of Arthur Miller, Moxie’s Discourse is out of order.
Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N, Rolando
$20 - $27
What the hell happened? Not only at Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, but on Moxie Theatre’s opening night? An odd and errant energy in both cases.
Abigail Williams, age 11, her cousin Betty Parris, and Mercy Lewis named names at the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Children, up to then considered empty-headed, suddenly became experts on the “invisible” world of witchcraft. With the power of life and death, they could smear anyone who just annoyed them slightly with evil intent. Their accusations led to an estimated 150 arrests of alleged witches, and at least 20 deaths, many by hanging.
In The Crucible, Arthur Miller likens Abigail to the anti-communist finger-pointers on the House Un-American Committee Hearings of the early 1950s, where an accusation, true or not, branded the accused as a traitor. All the characters in The Crucible, wrote E. Miller Budick, “have mistaken themselves for God.”
After the Salem trials, Abigail disappeared. Where to? “Nobody knows,” says Michael Clark, professor of literature at UC Irvine, and an authority on the subject. “There are several speculations, but she just disappears after the last recorded testimony in Salem trial transcripts.”
In a postscript to the play, Miller says, “Legend had it that [she] turned up later as a prostitute in Boston.” Which, of course, is yet another label.
Liz Duffy Adams’s A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World begins ten years after Abigail left Salem. The play says a man named Miller says she became a prostitute. To which someone shouts, “Miller is a goddamn liar!”
Abigail appears at Mercy Lewis’s rustic tavern on the northern New England coast. Abigail dresses and acts conservatively. Her sentences are rational, her eyes forthright. She’s so refined she could have just sailed in from Europe. There’s no trace of the pre-teen orphan who allegedly danced in the forest, baked witch cakes with rye and urine, and had an affair with 36-year-old John Proctor. Just a woman who looks a lot like Emily Dickinson and wants to know “what happened?”
Mercy Lewis hasn’t changed (her first name one of American history’s cruelest ironies). “My ambition was to save us all,” she says, still convinced she’s on the true path.
A man arrives wearing a coal-black coat and a high-crowned hat. He calls himself Fox and looks a lot like the Undertaker of WWE wrestling. Then he does a cheap magic trick with a throaty, House of Horrors voice to make an impression. Mercy, the xenophobic Reverend Peck, and young, tetched Judah stage a mock-trial, which mocks Arthur Miller, and finds Fox and Abigail guilty of the ultimate sin.
Discourse is not well constructed. It’s more concerned with dumping on Arthur Miller than probing one of America’s most scorching historical events (and gives a pat, partial answer at best). It combines the serious and the cartoony in odd ways. Or at least did so on Moxie Theatre’s opening night.
That night Moxie celebrated its tenth anniversary. The house howled, rightfully, at the achievement. Moxie, Cygnet, and Ion Theatre, among others, began and thrived in grim economic times. But the exuberance also infiltrated the production. Many in the house flat refused to acknowledge anything resembling menace, or even seriousness. So when Reverend Peck (Nick Young) or Judah (Christopher Murphy) waxed threateningly moral, they almost got laughed off the stage. Even Jorge Rodriguez’s stealthy Fox/Satan drew chuckles and tee-hee’s.
The play fought back in monologues. Young Olivia Hicks did a hair-raiser as Rebekkah, where she offers a Salem-ized version of the Scottish play. And Mercy’s (Wendy Waddell) recollections of an assault by natives underpinned her fears.
Jo Anne Glover also fought back as Abigail. Or tried. At once stately and perplexed, Abigail finds that she can’t probe far before walls spring up: defensive postures, tables-turned, the same close-minded, one-stamp-fits-all rhetoric of 1692. Abigail persists, driven to find out. But the more she does — or did, on opening night — the more the exuberance-warp betrayed her excellent performance.
Like watching Prince Hamlet beamed aboard the H.M.S. Pinafore.
Opening nights are always a piece of work. You’ve got the grim, Missouri-like “show me’s” waiting glumly to be impressed, and the comp’d, home-court-advantage Yummies adoring every moment. Both can influence a performance. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an opening quite like Moxie’s, though. The elation was understandable, and richly deserved — Moxie’s aptly named! The warp that followed, however, was strange, indeed. Glover had nothing but straw buffoons to play against. Laughter leached pathos from her dramatic moments, and from everything else.
6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N, San Diego
A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World, by Liz Duffy Adams
Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg; cast: Wendy Waddell, Jo Anne Glover, Olivia Hicks, Nick Young, Christopher Murphy, Jorge Rodriguez; scenic design, Robin Sanford Roberts; costumes, Jennifer Brawn Gittings; lighting, Christopher Renda; sound, Emily Jankowski
Playing through October 12: Thursday at 7pm; Friday and Saturday at 8pm; matinee Sunday at 2pm. 858-598-7620, moxietheatre.com