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They Burn Witches, Don't They?

Shotgun Players' Vinegar Tom highlights attitudes toward women across the centuries.

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It's disturbing to recognize contemporary urgency and relevancy in a play written 43 years ago about women oppressed and objectified by men in the mid-1600s. Surely, things must have changed by 2019, the mind protests. Sadly, a person might well concede that witch hunts continue as director Ariel Craft's boisterous, combative troupe of actors engage in Vinegar Tom, playwright Caryl Churchill's 90-minute, no intermission battle over women's bodies, abortion, Catholicism, "unconventional" lifestyles, and a person's right to the individual pursuit of happiness.

Misogyny, violence, greed, corruption, betrayal, abusive power, anti-Semitism, and sexual exploitation lead the charge in the alternating worlds of this Shotgun Players production. Set designer Nina Hall's jungle gym-like saloon is inhabited by saucy "barmaids" who sing, in seven interludes, a modern score whose lyrics display 20th century feminist awareness. Countering, in roughly 20 crisply delivered scenes, are events in a 17th century village in rural England during a time when the devil was topical and "outlier" women were accused of being witches and hanged or burned at the stake.

In that earlier world, Alice is a single mother in her twenties who chooses not to marry and desires little more than to escape to London, where she imagines it's permissible to "want a man she can want." Susan is Alice's close friend, but saddled with a marriage that has her constantly birthing babies she resists Alice's urgent push to visit the town's "common woman" for herbal medicine to terminate her latest pregnancy. After succumbing, Susan's residual, unrelenting guilt eventually leads her to betray their friendship when she joins accusations that Alice and her mother, Joan, are witches sent by the devil.

The primary accusers are husband-and-wife dairy farmers Jack and Margery, a couple whose poverty and assorted misfortunes they blame — after an argument with Joan — on Alice's impoverished mother, and even Joan's cat, Vinegar Tom. Twisting in the wind, Alice; BFF Susan; and Ellen, the "good witch" herbalist; are soon snared in the net of false accusations after Packer, a prolific "witch catcher," is brought in to identify evil women in the village. A scene with Packer poking the genitals of the women to find "the spot that does not bleed" as evidence of witchery is chilling, especially so in a Brechtian complaint directed by Packer to the audience after stabbing Alice five times, "I haven't the spot. Oh, it's tiring work."

Megan Trout was fabulous as Alice, applying cartwheeling, catapulting energy to the set's tiered platforms, stairways, and ladders. Especially convincing with sincere, committed performances were Celia Maurice as Joan and Sharon Shao, who played Betty, a young girl assumed to be close to mentally ill for refusing to marry an eligible — but much older and entirely undesirable — suitor. As a red-haired "lady on call" among the singers and in her role as Packer, Sarah Mitchell shined; with a dazzling voice in the former and tunneled malice well-placed as the witch inquisitor.

Overall, the singers and four-member band were excellent. The only regret — and it's considerable — was an imbalance that meant Churchill's satiric, candid lyrics were too often overwhelmed by composer Diana Lawrence's lively, vaudeville-style score as performed onstage by piano, sax, flute, clarinet and drums. Costume designer Brooke Jennings captured 17th century styles and the bordello aura of a 19th century saloon with astute attention to fabric texture, color, and form. Choreographer Natalie Greene was effective and took striking risks with lyrical same-sex duet interludes and women-lifting-women in ensemble action that bordered on contemporary modern dance.

With strong performances and production elements adding up to a brisk foray into the dark underbelly of witch hunts, Vinegar Tom closed with a top-hat-and-tails cabaret song and dance. Unsure if the campy scene left behind a vinegary, lightweight stench or a perfect punch — maybe both — one thing was certain: It's well past the time to stop drinking us-versus-them Kool Aid and grant equal status to non-conformists who make life all the richer for their diversity.

Through Jan. 19; $7–40, Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, 510-841-6500, ShotgunPlayers.org

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