Photos | Scott Gorman

 

The program for Hart House Theatre’s production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible begins with a note from director Michael Rubinstein: “If you have come to see a museum production of The Crucible, this is not that.” For a play based on the 1692 Salem witch trials, escaping the story’s “museum” quality without losing its integrity is an aspirational feat.

The play follows the chaos that ensues after a group of young girls are found dancing naked in the forest, raising concerns of the Devil’s presence in Salem. As each family names the sinners of other families, conflicts arise, and lust and jealousy materialize in the form of blame. In the trials that follow, over 90 members of the town are named by others as having “danced with the Devil.” So how does a director evade falling back on the “museum production” of The Crucible?

At the very least, Rubinstein’s statement seems to hold true for the production’s staging. Thanks to the skilled eye of set designer Chris Penna and the expertise of lighting designer C.J. Astronomo, The Crucible is effectively modernized by strobe lights and fog machines. Shifting from the strict dress of 17th-century Salem, costume designer Brandon Kleiman swaps men’s breeches for black jeans, while the women have traded in petticoats and bonnets for lighter, more modern dresses.

The centrepiece of Rubinstein’s non-“museum production” is its elevated circular stage. The shape of this wooden platform both restricts and opens the actors’ movements, encouraging them to move in increasingly tight circles in tandem with the figurative tension building between the villagers. When characters are not onstage, they remain seated among trees arranged at the back of the platform, observing the action taking place. They are voyeurs, creating the sensation that eyes are always watching.

If Rubinstein’s production of The Crucible successfully departs from the “museum production” in its staging, the play’s performative delivery was left behind. Most of the actors relied too heavily on raising their voices as a technique to create tension, and through overuse this ultimately diminished in effectiveness. Reverend Samuel Parris (Antholy Bothelo) delivered each of his lines in a static scream. As others, such as Thomas Putnam (Tomas Ketchum) and Anne Putnam (Allyson Landy), also shouted unvaryingly, the audience had no opportunity to sense developing character dynamics before the production lapsed into unbroken yelling. Although the historical moment of The Crucible does demand tension, such tension loses impact if overdone.

Perhaps, however, the play’s sheer volume served to accentuate the nuanced and vulnerable performances of the more unsuspecting characters. Nicholas Koy Santillo brings a loveable and sympathetic dimension to Reverend Hale, highlighting a relevant concern about the difficulty of finding one’s own moral ground. Betty Parris is played true-to-character by the 12-year-old Abigail Craven in an endearing performance; her youth underlines the absurdity of the chaos that ensues over her actions. Of course, Courtney Lamanna merits recognition for the physical language she gives to the vengeful Abigail Williams, whose way of walking with her hips sends chills through the audience. However, central to the production is the gravitational performance of Melissa Taylor as Elizabeth Proctor. Taylor’s honest demonstration of experiencing simultaneous love and resentment towards her husband John Proctor (Jon Berrie), compels the audience into a relationship with the play’s overarching story.

Considering the play’s origins, the choice of The Crucible for the Hart House’s 2017-2018 season is timely. Although the witch trials of Miller’s work occurred in the 1690s, he recognized them as an allegory for the conditions of his own time in 1952. For Miller, the 1950s were defined by the fear-mongering of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose political campaign exploited terror and guilt in order to identify and eradicate any Americans associated with Communism.

Just as Miller saw the events of 1692 in America as comparable to those of the 1950s, so too are these periods relevant to our modern society. Under the weight of McCarthyism and its frenzy of pointing fingers, truth could not be heard¾and the continual noise throughout this production of The Crucible does say something poignant about the political and social conditions of 2018. The fast-moving, name-calling tactics of “fake news” remind us of how the destruction of Salem, Massachusetts was accomplished – with 20 citizens hanged – through gossip alone. Rubinstein’s The Crucible may not have entirely transitioned out of the “museum production,” but without a doubt, it left the audience with a lesson about how societies act.