Downtown Repertory summons the Devil in Witch!
Top: An acting troupe perform a puppet show warning about witchcraft in Witch!
Interactive immersive theatrical production takes silent witnesses on a journey into the past, exploring England’s infamous Pendle Witch Trials.
Devilry is afoot in the village of Pendle. Jennet Device stands confessed of witchcraft, but former magistrate Roger Nowell has recently returned to dispute her confession. Why does she insist upon her guilt while he insists upon her innocence? She suggests the answer lies years in their past, during the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612. Though he denies this, their joint recollections engulf us, the silent witnesses of their discourse, and sweep us back to that turbulent year, where we experience first-hand the demonic horrors that befell the unfortunate populace.
The story is too voluminous, too full of incident, to be absorbed fully. Our experience of the past is therefore fragmented. Key scenes, such as the raucous witch trial, are visible to all, but many are the moments when we will be divided from our fellow witnesses in order to experience personal encounters with individuals involved in these events.
For ourselves, we helped Jennet bury a cursed doll in those bygone days when as a young girl she rejected witchcraft at the urging of Nowell and denounced her family as servants of the Devil himself. We also played dice with her brother, Markus, who used some sort of foul sorcery to cheat us out of our money while subtly mocking our losses. Of his guilt we have no doubt, though other villagers, particularly the unduly upstart widow Erika Godwin, insist upon the innocence of him and his family of devil-worshippers.
Certainly, some of what we see gives reason for doubt. Nowell is initially skeptical, refusing to accept wild accusations without evidence; however, as the appointed representative of King James, who has declared witchcraft a scourge upon England, he investigates the charges. Some witnesses seem dubious or confused, others perhaps dishonest, but eventually the sheer weight of testimony overwhelms the objections of naysayers like the Widow Godwin, and Nowell becomes convinced, drawing the net tighter around the evil coven at work in Pendle.
Doubts linger, but it is the way of the Devil to hide his cunning from human eyes. Fortunately, we as silent witnesses may see things in private that are seldom revealed to the world at large. A mysterious Gentleman conducts a puppet show warning of the evils of Witchcraft, and yet he reappears in other guises as if pulling the strings attached to human events, leading the unwary to embrace rather than avoid Satan. Witches address their familiars and lay claim to calling forth the storm that nearly sent King James’s ship to the ocean’s depths. Near the end of our journey into the past, the Devil mocks his human servants, convicted of witchcraft, for expecting him to spare them from punishment for the evil he has tempted them to undertake.
Such sights are not meant for human eyes, and would that we had not to experience them ourselves, but in the end it is better to see the truth of the evil at work than to remain ignorant and vulnerable to its deleterious effects. And yet, as we leave 1612 and return to Jennet and Nowell in her confinement, some flicker of doubt remains. Why does the innocent accuser of witches now claim to be a witch herself after all these years, and why though he denies it vehemently, does a shadow of guilt seem to hover over him? None of us can say for sure, for none of us knows the whole story; each silent witness to these events, both past and present, must decide for themself, depending on which personal encounters they experienced.
You, too, should take this journey into the past. Fear not the wrath of the Devil, for rest assured you will emerge unscathed in body – if not in mind and soul. The tragedy that befell Pendle is enough to inspire despair in the sturdiest bosom, but it is better to stare the Devil in the eye and see him for what he is – even if…even if…
Even if, in the end, our righteous conviction is tinged with lingering doubt. What if the truly guilty were not the ones accused but those who accused – not the ones convicted but those who convicted them? There are those like Widow Godwin who might deny the Devil’s hand in all this, but what if it was all part of his evil plan to lead the righteous to condemn the innocent?
Hollywood Gothique's rating of Witch!
1 – Avoid
2 – Some redeeming qualities
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
We have enjoyed Downtown Repertory Theatre’s previous immersive productions, The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe and It’s Alive, to varying degrees, but to our mind Witch! is the best of the three, offering a powerful dramatization of tragic historical events. Stories of witch trials are nothing new, but we appreciate that this one eschews Salem in favor of Pendle, a case with a rich historical context, particularly the influence of the (off-stage) King James, who really lit the fire that eventually engulfed the nation.
Inevitably, the story involves familiar elements of hysteria, paranoia, and superstition, but the script by Devon and John Armstrong views events through a different lens, depicting them more as the result of a supernatural conspiracy theory, with the participants, particularly Nowell acting not out of hysteria or superstition but out of a sense of duty to God, King, and Country; basically, he is trying to enforce the law he has sworn to uphold.
The immersive nature of the play allows audiences to get an up close and personal view upon the characters and events, with several “side quests” that diverge briefly from the main narrative, allowing more intimate, in some cases one-on-one, interaction with the characters. On the one hand, this fragmenting of the narrative interrupts the sense of gradual escalation typical in witch hunts (both literal and figurative), in which one accusation leads to multiple accusations, and initial skepticism is eventually overwhelmed by fear leading to unfettered belief. On the other hand, it provides opportunities to showcase the characters in more personal settings, where they can reveal their true selves – the doubts and fears hiding behind their public personas.
To some extent, splitting up the audience serves a practical purpose, since several scenes take place within the Victorian Mansions of Heritage Square Museum, which have limited seating capacity. (Similar considerations will apply when the play moves to Mountainview Mausoleum nearer to Halloween.) Temperature is a bit of a problem during the current heat wave; even if the night cools down, those mansions can be stuffy, and any entrance or exit by a character becomes a literal breath of fresh air as an outer door opens and closes.
One other problem involves timing. After splitting off on a side quest, there are sometimes lulls before rejoining the main action. We would pass this off as an opening night hiccup, but we experienced something similar at It’s Alive, last year, near the end of its run. At the very least, the cast should learn a little patter to fill the time spent waiting for the next scene to start.
Despite the heat and longueurs, we found ourselves swept up in the action as it was staged on the museum grounds and within its buildings, which provide an excellent period setting for the story (even if it is anachronistic by several centuries). The atmosphere of the place, redolent of years past, helps bring the events alive, making it easer to accept the characters’ credulity regarding the existence of witches – an existence which the play seems to endorse in several later scenes. In some cases, it is merely a matter of accused witches taking credit (or blame) for events they believe they caused; in other cases, we actually see what seem to be their familiars engaging them in dialogue.
It is an open question as to how to read this intrusion of actual supernatural events into a story apparently about people falling prey to belief in unreal superstition. Our best guess is that, witch trials typically involved confessions – and not just because they were coerced. The accused were often as like to believe in witchcraft as their accusers, and whether from being tortured or questioned until they gave the answers that were expected – or even because some truly believed themselves to be witches – many did provide accounts of the sort depicted in these scenes.
Inevitably, the targeting of (predominantly) women as witches strikes a feminist chord when seen from a 21st Century perspective. Fortunately, the play does not hammer this home dogmatically but lets it evolve from the drama. Erika Godwin gets to be the female voice of reason because her status as a well-to-do widow gives her license to speak her mind in a way that the other women of Pendle cannot.
We don’t’ want to turn this into a laundry list of how great the entire cast is, so we will limit ourselves to saying that the two leads, Chanel Castañeda as Jennet and Christopher Karbo as Nowell, shoulder the dramatic burden, offering compelling renditions of conflicted characters whose questionable actions feel understandable and relatable. Alice Nutter walks a fine line as Godwin, forthright enough to engender admiration from the audience while not going so far as to be unbelievable in a 17th century setting. And Isaac W. Jay is beguiling as The Gentleman, a man of many faces and perhaps the only character to grasp events in their entirety: he narrates the play-within-the-play with third-person omniscience and by implication serves a similar role for Witch! itself, suggesting he may be a stand in for the Devil, God, or perhaps just the playwrights. We’ll leave that to you to decide.
In any case, Witch!‘s immersive theatricality does not extend to the sort of jump-scares, makeup effects, and stunts seen in Delusion Interactive Theatre. Instead, the focus is far more on the drama. The hints of actual witchcraft are eerie and unsettling, but the true horror here is moral in nature, watching ostensibly sensible people succumb not only to delusions but also to the weight of convictions and duties that drive them to commit monstrous acts. It’s a horrifying message about human nature that never goes out of style, even 400 years after the real-life events.
Credits: Presented by Downtown Repertory Theatre. Directed by Devon Armstrong. Written by Armstrong and John Armstrong. Producer & Costume Design: Val Veidelman. Tech Director: John Dimitri. LIghting Design: Malcolm Wilson.
Cast: Chanel Castañeda (Jennet Device), Christopher Karbo (Roger Nowell), Erika Godwin (Alice Nutter), Imani Preyor (Alice Nutter), Jahnavi Alyssa (Anne Redferne), Caroline Quigley (Anne Redferne), Isaac W Jay (The Gentleman), Rachel Levy (Lizzie Device), Danielle Fraser (Lizzie Device), Mark Youngs (Bannister), Georgan George (Elizabeth ‘Demdike’ Southerns), Aidan Collet (Thomas Lister), Sarah Lee Harter (Alizon Device), Markus Jorgensen (James Device).
Witch! continues at Heritage Square Museum on select nights through September 5. The address is 3800 Homer Street in Los Angeles. Performances at Mountain View Mausoleum take place on September 30, October 1-2, 7-9, 14-16, 21, 23, 27-31, and November 4-6. The address is 2300 N. Marengo Avenue in Altadena, Ca 91001.
Tickets can be purchased at Eventbrite for $70. For more information, contact: email@example.com, or visit downtownrep.com.
The show is recommended for adults.