Who knew that seventeenth century England and modern musical interludes could make such a compelling feminist rhetoric? I was pretty skeptical when I went to watch Northeastern University’s theatre department production of “Vinegar Tom,” directed by Janet Bobcean.
Written in 1976 by feminist playwright Caryll Churchill, the play combines a narrative about witch-hunts in the seventeenth century and modern interludes commenting on women’s oppression by a society governed by men for men.
The story focuses primarily on Alice, a rebellious young woman in her twenties who lives with her mother. After a series of altercations with their neighbors, followed by said neighbors’ misfortunes related to their farm, the two women are accused of witchcraft. But that’s not all — on top of accusations of witchcraft, “Vinegar Tom” also includes a forced marriage and punishment for a woman’s abortion.
The play’s complex narrative has weaknesses which makes it a challenge for anyone who wants to perform it, let alone a university production. I was thus particularly impressed with Bobcean and her team for rendering “Vinegar Tom” so successfully through good acting choices and a beautiful set.
So let’s start with the one thing that did not work particularly well: the songs. It seems important to note, however, that my problem with the songs had nothing to do with this particular performance, and everything to do with the songs themselves. These ultra-feminist rants about women’s mistreatment make good points but force them down the public’s throat. They hammer them down repeatedly. Because of that, they were sometimes hard to bear.
That being said, Northeastern’s production of “Vinegar Tom” made the songs swallowable, as they were saved by the performers’ beautiful voices and lovely melodies. This made it possible to listen without paying too much attention to all the lyrics.
Another possible difficulty for anyone performing the play is its setting; however, the actors clearly overcame this challenge. Being so far removed from current times (the 17th century), the setting could have made the acting ridiculous. In order for the performance to be bearable, it demanded nothing less from the actors than total commitment to the roles and world of the play. And they pulled it off. They committed so well and even got the accents right, going as far as still using them during breaks while rehearsing for the play. It is that full immersion from the cast that really got the audience involved.
The actors were, of course, helped by the unbelievable set the crew put together. They realistically made a dreary forest, two dwellings, and a tree house appear on stage! It was so perfect I wanted to wander around the stage. It’s important to keep in mind that university plays have a tiny budget. For example, the “Vinegar Tom” crew only had $300 for props. So this elaborate set — the most elaborate I have seen in my three years at Northeastern — and the costumes and props that went with it, is an achievement for Northeastern. Those elements contributed strongly to the macabre ambiance, making it easier for the public to immerse themselves into the world of the play.
Overall, “Vinegar Tom,” despite its few quirks, was definitely a show worth watching. The play’s take on women’s right, though unsettling at points (like in some of the songs,) was definitely an inspiration. In addition, the acting, combined with clever directorial choices made this show a compelling and awareness-raising tale. Honestly, the set itself was enough reason to go watch it.
“Vinegar Tom” ran at the Studio Theater at Northeastern University from Nov. 10-20.