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Arthur Miller's The Crucible

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 31, 2016

Arthur Miller's The Crucible Directed by Ivo van Hove. Original Score by Philip Glass. Scenic & lighting design by Jan Versweyveld. Costume design by Wojciech Dziedzic. Video design by Tal Yarden. Sound design by Tom Gibbons. Movement by Steven Hoggett. Cast: Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo, Ciarán Hinds, Saoirse Ronan, Bill Camp, Tavi Gevinson, Jason Butler Harner, Tina Benko, Jenny Jules, Thomas Jay Ryan, Brenda Wehle, Teagle F. Bougere, Michael Braun, Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut, Elizabet Teeter, Ray Anthony Thomas, Erin Wilhelmi, and Jim Norton.
Theatre: Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street between Broadway & 8th Avenue
Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Sophie Okonedo and Ben Whishaw
Photo by Jan Versweyveld

When you see people flying and slamming into walls, and enormous chunks of ceiling crumble to the ground, your first instinct may be that an earthquake or tornado is afoot. Not so these days at the Walter Kerr: These days, a meteorological phenomenon of a very different type is afoot. Ivo van Hove's new production of The Crucible has conjured up a perfect storm of didacticism.

How could the result be anything else? This is Arthur Miller's most baldly obvious play, pretending to be about the 1692 Salem witch trials but actually responding to the McCarthyist communist-routing government actions of the era in which it premiered (1953). Miller's tireless excavation of the parasitic relationship between truth and lies in a closed enclave leaves nothing to chance, which is van Hove's own personal stock in trade, too. His habit of wrenching locked-in-place works into other times and places and stripping them of any and all subtext ensures that, whether it's Hedda Gabler or Miller's own A View From the Bridge (which premiered earlier this season), what you're seeing is always his first, second, and third, and anyone else's further down the line.

So it's barely surprising that van Hove sets the action not in the God-fearing Northern Massachusetts of then, but an anonymous parochial school of today, or that he has employed grand explosions, shimmering flight effects, and violently animated projections to thrust us out of any potential realm of the imagination. (An unsettlingly wolf-like dog wanders across the stage in full-scavenger mode immediately after intermission.) There's even a constantly rumbling musical soundscape beneath the action that tells us how we're supposed to feel at any given moment, just in case the throbbing lights, choking smoke, and screeching actors leave even the tiniest shred of doubt. Whether any of it is The Crucible, though, depends on your personal definition of theatrical identity.

It certainly removes the critical context of (literally) puritanical self-denial against which the story is necessarily set; if you don't believe that these are people devoted to, and terrified of, God, the antics of the young women who "become" infested with Satan's spirit and wreak havoc on the village have a muted impact. The school of van Hove's conception is liberal at best (there are uniforms for the kids, but that's about it) and free-wheeling at worst, which leaves you wondering what all the fuss is about: Are we sure these girls aren't just high? The adults we meet all seem laid-back enough to not care about that. And with all the special effects that explode in (and often between) every other scene, you're clearly not supposed to seriously question whether any of this is actually happening.

Ben Whishaw, Bill Camp, Tavi Gevinson, and Ciarán Hinds
Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Whatever. These are van Hove's typical games, and they don't connect with the text any more here than they usually do, though of course they're not supposed to—they're meant to be disjointed, jarring, and alienating spins on the familiar so that you're not consumed with preconceptions of "plot" and "common sense" that might spoil the director's vision. At least there are fewer damaging script cuts, and a marginally more intelligent framing device, at play here than in van Hove's bracingly obtuse (and less effective) A View From the Bridge. But you don't come across caring more about the people, or Miller's triple-underlined message, than you would in a well-acted traditional production—your other senses are just sent spinner faster and more often.

So there's little point in dwelling on the plight of John Proctor, purveyor of a pre-show affair with his servant, Abigail Williams, whom John's wife, Elizabeth, has now kicked to the proverbial curb, as he tries to cut through Abigail's spooky demonic visions before they rend the town in twain. Miller may have constructed a complete, intricate community here, in which the shortcomings and failings of everyone from the local, controversial reverend to the gullible Deputy-Governor Danforth, are exploited to some dastardly end, but except in distant and distancing ways, these are irrelevant. In a van Hove production, you're not supposed to dig down.

The performers do, and they're a remarkable bunch, to a person almost capable of rising above their surroundings. Ben Whishaw is an outstanding, darkly invested John who erodes with a deliciously increasing velocity as he's pushed to and over the edge. As Elizabeth, Sophie Okonedo cuts through the role's off-putting potential saintliness to create a cunningly intense woman who's nowhere near as dumb as she is trusting. Ciarán Hinds steps right to the edge as the power-mad Danforth, but never goes over it; his is a fierce, chilling portrayal replete with deliciously complex motives.

Veterans like Jason Butler Harner (coolly smarmy as the reverend), Jim Norton (blithely hilarious as Giles Cory), Thomas Jay Ryan, Bill Camp, Tina Benko, and Brenda Wehle fill out the cast with their gutsy, magnetic performances, and relative newcomers like Saoirse Ronan (as Abigail) and Tavi Levinson (as Mary Warren, the girl who resists "giving in" to the "devil") match them step for shattering step.

But even actors this good get lost easily amid van Hove's machinations, which don't support the superb character work he's helped them all elicit. Instead of the people, you always end up focusing more on the set and lights (Jan Versweyveld), which highlight the giant blackboard upstage; Tal Yarden's hyperactive (and, as far as I could tell, dramatically unnecessary) video effects; and Philip Glass's nonstop, uncentered score that rumbles constantly beneath the dialogue like a derailing subway train. (The appropriately teeth-chattering sound design is by Tom Gibbons.)

Crave it though you might, you're never allowed a moment of silence or even vague stillness to reflect on what The Crucible and its warnings about the sowing of discord can or should resonate with us today. Because, in this rendering, they don't mean anything; they're a vehicle toward flatter, more visceral ends. All you can think about instead is how this play has finally received its ultimate production, but been destroyed by it. What, after all, could avoid this category-five confluence of self-satisfied sententiousness?

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