VINEGAR TOM by Caryl Churchill, directed by Adam Bailey (Royal Porcupine). At the Young Centre (55 Mill). To November 29. $10-$25. 416-866-8666.
This early play by Caryl Churchill, best known for works such as Top Girls (which, coincidentally, overlapped for a few performances last weekend with Vinegar Tom at the Young Centre), uses takes the metaphor of the witch to examine the role of women and of the "other" in Western society.
Churchill takes a Brechtian approach to the story, contrasting contemporary songs with the 17th-century narrative, set in British village where a number of women are accused by their neighbours of witchcraft.
It's always those who step outside of what's approved by patriarchal society who have a finger pointed at them, often those without the protection of (that is, control by) a man: an old widow and her daughter, a conjure woman who deals in herbs and cures, a stubborn young woman who doesn't want to get married, a pregnant woman who considers an abortion.
The women who prosper in this story are the married ones or those who follow the rules set up by men: a farmer's wife who makes the first accusations and a witch-hunter's assistant, who admits that she'd rather torture, hang and burn others than stay home a widow.
The male characters are either the deceitful seducers or the seduced, taking advantage of the women or blaming the women for their impotence and even their own sexual desire.
While it's a piece steeped in feminism, Vinegar Tom - the name of the old widow's cat, presumed a witch's familiar - Churchill also makes the point that any group of outsiders (black, Jewish, gay or whatever) is also subject to attack.
But the didactic content doesn't detract from the work's theatricality. Too bad this production isn't dramatically engaging; weak performances and uneven pacing slow down the evening.
The best work is by Rosemary Doyle as Margery, the farmer's wife who sees a chance for revenge against her neighbours, and Annemieke Wade as Ellen, the conjure woman who tries to ease people's pains but is condemned for trafficking with the devil. Wade's also strong in the most music-hall number of the show, in which she's paired with Paula Schultz as Kramer and Sprenger, authors of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, the textbook on how to discover witches and prove the carnality of the female sex.
There's satiric subtext aplenty in having these two women play men who condemn women, and their chemistry and sharp delivery contrasts with much of the rest of director Adam Bailey's production.
Others moments in the show capture the play's emotional chill. Leah Wahl's Alice, a young woman who enjoys sex and wants to run away from her parochial village, brings a cold fire to her realization that if she were the witch that others claim, she would wreak horrible destruction on them all. As Goody, assistant to a witch-hunter, June Morrow brings a scary matter-of-factness to explaining her actions against her sister women.
The music by K. Hillary Thomson may have its strengths, but it's so wanly performed by The Little Weasels (a combo of musicians and vocalists). A few numbers stand out, though: Something To Burn, which starts up-tempo and then turns nasty and melancholy in its philosophy of finding scapegoats to take the burden of society's ills, and a country-and-western tune about how to go about proving someone's a witch.