Sunday, May 12, 2013

Theatre review: "Abigail/1702" at City Theatre

City Theatre is offering a quite recent play, one which premiered earlier this year in Cincinnati. It’s Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Abigail/1702 which deliberately spins off and into Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. It speculates what might have happened to one of the prime sources of evil in Miller’s tale, Abigail Williams.Her accusations spurred famed real-life witchcraft trials and executions in 17th Century Salem Massachusetts. Abigail was said to have trafficked with the Devil.

Certainly such a story carries with it sinister shadows and suggestions of dark doings but this script takes considerable time to develop them, at first in meandering exposition as Abigail talks about herself, and later, at great length, detailing horrible events before she arrived in Salem. A minor plot situation is set up, a romance. That element vanishes as the later part of the play follows a new path with interesting revelations and permutations. There, actor John Feltch makes it memorable in a compelling portrayal of the Devil, full of style and personality. On the other hand, especially by contrast, Diane Davis in the major role of Abigail stays a colorless, hollow figure.
I suppose you could infer that this 10 years- later version of drably dressed Abigail, having been drained of her previous venom, has become tame. Yet, Aguirre-Sacasa posits her as full of remorse and sorrow, trying to atone by doing good works. In her new life, with a new name, she has become a devoutly religious healer doing her best to remain virtuous. Davis conveys none of the potential therein, as if relying on her words to say it all, words which, in her case, she often delivers in unvarying cadences blurring meaning rather than clarifying it. And, on opening night, she seemed more often propelled by intensity and volume than by something complex going on inside.

As for the rest of the plot essentials, Abigail heals plague-infected young sailor John Brown who falls in love with her. And she cares about a local boy named Thomas. Finally the fascinating essence of something dramatic happens when the Devil comes calling.
Likewise referring to the legendary past, Reverend Parris appears. In Miller’s play as in real life, Parris bore some responsibility for the persecutions and punishments during the witch trials. Here, 10 years later, he newly laments his responsibility. In this role too actor Feltch comes across with substance.

Aguirre-Sacasa has written dialogue akin to Miller’s in types of speech suggesting the period. He goes over much old ground of what happened in The Crucible, instead of exploring new territory, coming up with story-telling rather than character study.
Tony Ferrieri has created a remarkably imaginative set suggesting ghosts of trees.  And, effectively adding to the atmosphere, Eric Shimelonis has written some good period-implying music. Tracy Brigden directed, keeping the play moving well.

FYI: The only local actors are two pre-teen brothers alternating in the small role of Thomas.
Clearly the play still needs work. Having a more convincing, more definitive performance of  the title character might help.

Abigail/1702 continues through May 26th at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, South Side-412/ 431-CITY (2489) or

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