Bewitched: America’s Puritan past – and present

LONG BEACH, Calif. – Pondering the deeply reactionary side of American history, those slave-driving plantation owners way down yonder in the land of cotton remain unforgotten and immediately come to mind. But another extremist trend took root way down East and up North in Massachusetts, where the Puritans settled. Both of these tendencies – the profoundly puritanical and racist – can be traced back to the earliest days of colonial America and continue to haunt the 21st-century U.S., where matters of sex and race still plague our bedeviled land.

Playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa tackles this daunting terrain in Abigail/1702, which sort of follows up from Arthur Miller’s classic 1953 play, The Crucible. Abigail Williams was a historical character who played a central role in the 1692 Salem Witch Trials and in Miller’s play. After instigating the witchcraft tribunals, in The Crucible Abigail flees Salem, which is where Aguirre-Sacasa picks up the scent of Abigail’s trail.

Ten years later, in Abigail/1702 – although some historical accounts believe she was actually dead by then – we find Abigail (Jennifer Cannon) trying to pick up the pieces of her life, living under an assumed name at a village outside of Boston, where she cares for those stricken by an epidemic. This is a clever reference to both the Blacklist and black magic, as witches have been linked to the healing arts and potions. Miller’s Crucible was a parable critiquing the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthyism, which forced Hollywood writers, among others, to use pseudonyms.

Meanwhile, back at the plot:

The appropriately named Ross Hellwig portrays the imaginatively monikered Young Man, who purports himself to be a sailor stricken by the plague. He shows up at Abigail’s out-of-town cottage, beseeching the reluctant healer (and sorceress?) to cure him of his ailments. The developing relationship between the handsome strapping young man and Abigail suggests that witchcraft and pestilence symbolize sexuality, that scourge of the Puritans.

Act I sets things up neatly, but the second act is tediously talky, as Cannon proceeds to narrate much of the story. In doing so Aguirre-Sacasa commits a cardinal sin of stage and screen storytelling, wherein the artists are supposed to show us, not tell us. This is particularly head-scratching, as Aguirre-Sacasa has a background in TV and comic books, which are extremely visual mediums. He also has a theater background, co-writing the book for Broadway’s crass, star-crossed attempt to cash in on – uh, I mean, theater adaptation of – Spider-Man. Methinks this graduate of the renowned Yale School of Drama needs to go back to school because Abigail/1702 is talkier than a speech by Fidel Castro during his heyday. Dude, it’s called “acting,” not “narrating!”

The real identity of the also imaginatively named Little Boy (Jace Febo) is telegraphed a mile away.

The inspired casting of Kevin Bailey in a dual (or is it?) role as a magistrate (called in the Playbill “Older Man”) and as Lucifer is crafty. Making a judge the devil is in keeping with Miller’s metaphorical attack on HUAC and Sen. Joe McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearings, shrewdly comparing these inquisitions to the Salem Witch Trials in The Crucible. Indeed, these latter day Torquemadas of the 1940s and 1950s “reds-under-the-beds” anti-communist Cold War hysteria came to be commonly referred to as “witch-hunters.” Perhaps Miller, who was actually subpoenaed to testify before HUAC, originated this reference? (Fortunately, his superstar then-wife, Marilyn Monroe, cast a spell on the Committee and Miller got off relatively lightly.)

Unlike über-rat fink Elia Kazan, Miller acquitted himself honorably, refusing – unlike Kazan and his spiritual “forebear” Abigail Williams – to name names. Miller and Kazan went on to joust onscreen and onstage with dueling works by Miller condemning informing and movies such as Kazan’s 1954 On the Waterfront that glorified informers as heroes, with HUAC-friendly witness Lee J. Cobb playing Johnny Friendly, references galore to (stool) pigeons, and so on.

Meanwhile, back at Abigail/1702:

Caryn Desai directed this West Coast premiere of Aguirre-Sacasa’s two-acter, Kim DeShazo designed the costumes (think buckles!) and scenic designer Christopher Scott Murillo tries to set the mood with spectral shaped, amorphous trees. This play is probably best for those who simply love dramatic conflict, viewers interested in spooky stories and audiences interested in early American history. These Puritans were so psychotic that 300-plus years later, America has yet to exorcise itself of these demonic settlers, who slaughtered the Indians, and enslaved Blacks such as Tituba. The U.S. is still beset by puritanical madness. (Think I’m kidding? Did you hear Mike Huckabee’s anti-gay, anti-choice speech tossing his wide brimmed, buckled conical hat into the ring? Sounds like he’s running for Grand Inquisitor or Pilgrim-in-Chief, not for president of a republic.)

Abigail/1702 reminds us of America’s primal sins and psychoses, and why Cole Porter wrote in Anything Goes, and Malcolm X later reworked: “‘Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock would land on them.” Those wacky Puritans – then and now – definitely have rocks in their heads. It’s time to saddle up and move these pilgrims out, partners.

Abigail/1702 is being performed on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and on Sundays at 2:00 pm at the International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, Calif., through May 24. For more info: (562) 436-4610; www.InternationalCityTheatre.com.

Photo: citytheatrecompany.org


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Film historian and critic Ed Rampell was named after CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in cinema at New York's Hunter College. After graduating, he lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, where he reported on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific movement for "20/20," Reuters, AP, Radio Australia, Newsweek, etc. He went on to co-write "The Finger" column for New Times L.A. and has written for many other publications, including Variety, Mother Jones, The Nation, Islands, L.A. Times, L.A. Daily News, Written By, The Progressive, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and AlterNet.

Rampell appears in the 2005 Australian documentary "Hula Girls, Imagining Paradise." He co-authored two books on Pacific Island politics, as well as two film histories: "Made In Paradise, Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas" and "Pearl Harbor in the Movies." Rampell is the author of "Progressive Hollywood, A People's Film History of the United States." He is a co-founder of the James Agee Cinema Circle and one of L.A.'s most prolific film/theatre/opera reviewers.

Comments

comments