Provocative ‘Vinegar Tom’ in Berkeley is a must-see

Megan Trout as Alice and Celia Maurice as Joan in the Shotgun Players’ production of Vinegar Tom. Photo: Ben Krantz

Look in the mirror tonight.
Would they have hanged you then?
Ask how they’re stopping you now. 

(from the song Lament for the Witches)

Who but the audacious and courageous Shotgun Players would choose to produce Caryl Churchill’s rather adult feminist musical play about 17th-century English witches as its end-of-year holiday spectacular? And what an outstanding choice it turned out to be.

Unmarried or otherwise nonconforming 17th-century English women who suffered social and economic hardships would often be accused of being witches and punished on the slimmest of pretexts. In Vinegar Tom, these outsiders are used by celebrated British playwright Churchill (b. 1938) in her 1976 work as representations of late 20th-century women’s gender and sexual discrimination.


With the entertaining commentary of seven contemporary songs, fetchingly costumed and performed in the style of German expressionist Berthold Brecht, but with the enriching import of a Greek chorus, the author presents the tales of Alice (Megan Trout, Hamlet, The Mousetrap), an uninhibited unwed mother in her 20s, who lives in a small village, Alice’s indigent, grouchy widowed mother Joan (Celia Maurice), Alice’s friend Susan (Amanda Farbstein, Kill the Debbie Downers!), who is married and overburdened with babies, and Betty (Sharon Shao) who does not want to marry at all — ever. Some of the women seek out another outsider, the local midwife and herbalist Ellen (Sam Jackson, Kill the Debbie Downers!), for home-brewed medicinal remedies, advice, and solace.

Alice and Joan’s neighbors, the married couple Jack (Dov Hassan) and Margery (Jennifer Mc George), suffer a number of financial setbacks on their farm as well as the onset of Jack’s impotence. Rather than follow the conventional thinking that God’s judgment caused their problems (or that they simply happened), they accuse Joan and her cat, Vinegar Tom, of witchcraft. In several searing and unnerving scenes near the end of the production, two inquisitors in Puritan garb are brought in to “test” several of the women for witchcraft in painful and humiliating ways, all to a predetermined result.

Thank goodness for the lively music by the four-piece band (Daniel Alley, music director, original music by Diana Lawrence), the contemporary and clever songs by the raunchily-clad (Brooke Jennings, costume designer) fabulous ensemble and Fosse-Esque choreography. One happy number is complete with top hats and tails (choreography by Natalie Greene). Without these upbeat elements, Vinegar Tom would be a melancholy tale indeed.

Skillfully directed by Ariel Craft, Vinegar Tom is almost two hours without an intermission, and although the cast was uniformly excellent, led by Megan Trout, it took a bit too long before it reached the climax of the witches’ tribunal. The actors, who used an old English/Cockney dialect (Nancy Carlin, dialect coach) had to work harder to be understood than they might have otherwise.

Churchill, whose plays are undergoing a renaissance of sorts in the Bay Area this year, collaborated with the feminist theatre company Monstrous Regiment when first creating this project in 1976. She favors harsh, direct language to make her points in Vinegar Tom — more like a machete than the more subtle stiletto style used in her urbane 1982 drama Top Girls (produced by Shotgun in 2015 and ACT this year).

Although a bit heavy-handed in her message, the author conveys the sobering viewpoint that witch-hunts targeted marginalized women who were thought by men to be threatening, and that unfortunately, women are still victims today. Churchill focuses on the subjugation of women in Vinegar Tom, but one can’t ignore the larger, more inclusive message that, over the centuries, people have sought to make scapegoats of anyone who is different.

Although I don’t suggest you bring the kiddies, Shotgun’s holiday gift of Vinegar Tom should definitely be seen. It contains a compelling message, sugar-coated in a gaudy entertaining package.

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