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Sarah Flood In Salem Mass

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Jeff Ronan (center) and the cast.
Photo by Hunter Canning.
If you ever plan to do some time traveling, it would be a good idea to familiarize yourself with Ray Bradbury's short story, "A Sound of Thunder," in which the science fiction/fantasy writer first laid out the consequences of veering off the officially-sanctioned path. If not, you may end up like the title character in Sarah Flood In Salem Mass, the imaginative and inventive new play by Adriano Shaplin now on view at The Flea Theater.

Shaplin, artistic director of the Riot Group—known for its absurdist performance pieces—has created a mashup of Bradbury, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan ("The Village,") and playwright Arthur Miller (The Crucible) in a consideration of the life and times of the inhabitants of Salem, Massachusetts prior to the infamous Witch Trials.

Featuring a talented cast of 18 members of The Bats, The Flea's resident acting company, and directed in an impressionistic and carefully choreographed style by Rebecca Wright, Sarah Flood In Salem Mass opens with a prologue set in the year 2192. Two young women, Sarah Flood (Kate Thulin) and Juyoung (Jamie Bock), are planning to defy the recently-enacted ban on time travel in order to prevent the Salem Witch Trials from ever taking place. Their mantra: "Change everything. Save everyone. Don't get caught."

Certainly, things are amiss in Salem, as the narrator (Matthew Cox), a local farmer, informs us as the play switches to the 17th Century locale. "This is the village," he says. "It is full of frightened people who work almost all the time. And we aren't frightened in vain."

The citizens of Salem, with the exception of a couple of well-to-do landowners, work constantly—hard, physical labor—just to subsist. Formal religious indoctrination, a key component of the looming era of the Witch Trials, has yet to take hold, although prayer (there are many references to "The Book") and superstition are already well established, and there is a strict order to things that cannot be defied with impunity.

Through it all, however, the villagers have maintained a degree of empathy, a united-we-stand attitude. The strictest form of punishment is a mock execution, where a miscreant might be shot with an unloaded musket as a reminder to walk the straight and narrow. In this same spirit, Salem has become the home to refugees from other towns that have been devastated by Indian massacres or killer illnesses. As long as everyone pulls his or her own weight and obeys the social norms, all is stable.

Meanwhile, Sarah Flood, the visitor from the future, has decided to openly join the community by pretending to be a refugee, made mute through a tongue amputation during an Indian raid. She becomes both an anthropologist and a participant, still harboring the expectation that she will be able to alter the impending events.

Because the villagers have been living on the borderline between success and ruination, it doesn't take much to tip the balance toward the latter. The introduction of a preacher (Jeff Ronan), the merger-through-marriage of two wealthy families, the onset of disease, and a bit of youthful rebellion and parental interference combine to push the story to its inevitable conclusion.

Sarah Flood In Salem Mass is a provocative work, intelligently written so that we are able to develop a growing understanding of the big picture through observing snapshots of the daily routines of the villagers, just as Sarah Flood does. We too, after all, are visitors from the future.

The ensemble acting, the tight directing, Caitlin Lainoff's minimalist set design, and the playwright's own well-produced sound design work well together to make for a most intriguing theatrical experience.

Sarah Flood In Salem Mass
Through October 27
Flea Theater, 41 White Street between Broadway and Church Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix