Theater review: ‘Witch’ at N.C. Stage Company

DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND: In N.C. Stage Company's "Witch," the Devil, portrayed by Arusi Santi, second from right, meets his match in the title character, played by Callan White, right. Also pictured, from left to right, are Gabrielle Story, Daniel Henry, Anthony Johnson and Philip Kershaw. Photo courtesy of N.C. Stage

There’s a familiar tale we’ve all heard of an old witch who lives out in the country casting spells, healing the sick and scaring little children. Jen Silverman’s play Witch, now showing at N.C. Stage Company through Sunday, April 7, takes that legend in a whole new direction.

Witch is very loosely based on the 1621 English play The Witch of Edmonton by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford. In Silverman’s version, none other than the Devil himself finds his way to Edmonton. The Devil is neither man nor woman but a shape-shifting spirit wearing different skins. This time, he appears in the form of a man using the alias Scratch (played by Arusi Santi). Devious as ever, he’s on a quest to collect souls. When townsfolk are at their most vulnerable, Scratch offers them a bargain to make their darkest wishes come true.

First, Scratch tempts Cuddy Banks (Daniel Henry), who wants to inherit the status, land and fortune of his father, Sir Arthur Banks (Philip Kershaw). Because Cuddy is a closeted homosexual, his family fears he won’t have children to carry on their name. Cuddy sees his future being cruelly taken away from him by the handsome but impoverished Frank Thorney (Anthony Johnson). Although not a blood relative, Frank worked for the Banks family, gained Sir Arthur’s trust and is now under consideration to be the sole heir. With both Cuddy and Frank willing to do anything for the inheritance, Scratch is poised for an easy soul nabbing. That is, until he pays a visit to the cottage of Elizabeth (Callan White), a peculiar woman whom the townsfolk have deemed their token witch. An unexpected energy between the two poses a threat to the Devil’s cunning plans.

While this production has a lot to love, there is also a lot of room for improvement. It does not help that Silverman’s script feels rushed to publication. It wants so badly to be relevant and modern with on-trend dialogue blended in. Certainly, there was a masterpiece brewing here with terrific ideas, but they never quite reached their full potential. Missing scenes, particularly in the latter part of the play, plague the far-too-ambiguous ending.

Director Angie Flynn-McIver does her best to walk the tightrope between drama and comedy, but overall, the combating genres just don’t mesh well. Flynn-McIver has a knack for humor, but had she guided the actors into a more serious realm, the play’s written shortcomings might be less apparent.

The production’s lack of homosexual nuances is also utterly heartbreaking. For example, a scorching opportunity was missed in the well-choreographed fight sequence by Bill Muñoz. Flynn-McIver could have included within it an element of homoeroticism — reminiscent of the famed fireplace brawl in the 1969 film Women in Love. It would have shaken the audience in the best of ways. Still, this scene and others were powerful, given the assertive pacing.

What an exciting and thought-provoking character the Devil would be for an actor to play, and Santi clearly has a lot of fun with the role. However, his performance has a major underpinning of bravado, and distractingly, he plays the audience for laughs. While the Devil is known to be charming, Santi’s portrayal would have benefited from a touch of internal fury and frightening coldness. Eventually, Santi catches a wave of seriousness and rides it to the end. This is in large part thanks to his firelit scenes with White. It is there that the audience can see flickers of truth in his performance.

White’s acting is far and away some of the best in the region, and she lives her character to the bone. Many actors are fearful to inhabit their roles in such a way, but once the connection is made, the feeling is beyond rewarding to both the performer and the audience. It takes talent, persistence and ingenuity to foster this style of acting. Unfortunately, as the role is written, we never get the chance to feel Elizabeth in a manipulative push-pull with the Devil. Such scenes oscillating like a pendulum would have incorporated a dramatic thrill. Still, White’s honest portrayal effortlessly steals the show, elevating it to another level.

Johnson is also memorable as the power-seeking rogue who appears possessed by the Devil’s charm and promise of a better life. His riveting climactic scene with Gabrielle Story as Winnifred is the production’s best.

The marriage of Julie K. Ross’ scenic design and Victoria Depew’s edgy costume design cleverly places the audience in a dissonant world that feels like a fable. Witch wants us to ponder what it would take to change such a world, or if we are better off making peace with the story we are already in. If we were given the chance to make such a choice, how careful would we be?

WHAT: Witch
WHERE: N.C. Stage Company, 15 Stage Lane,
WHEN: Through Sunday, April 7. Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. $10-$48


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About Kai Elijah Hamilton
Kai Elijah Hamilton was born and raised in Western North Carolina. A poet, screenwriter and playwright, he is also a published film and theater critic. Hamilton is a creative individual with a wide range of talents and interests. He is an Award Winning Actor (Tom in "The Glass Menagerie") and Director ("A Raisin In The Sun"). He previously served as Artistic Director at Hendersonville Little Theatre and has a B.A. in theater and film from Western Carolina University. In 2016, Hamilton's play "The Sleepwalker" won a spot in the first annual Asheville National 10-Minute Play Festival by NYS3. His play "Blackberry Winter" was a finalist in the elite Strawberry One-Act Festival in NYC winning Best Short Film/Video Diary. Hamilton is also the author of the full-length southern-gothic play "Dry Weather Wind" which has been called "Important. Relevant to the issues in today's time, and beautifully written..."

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