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The Crucible: Theater review by David Cote
There are two types of audience members attending Ivo van Hove’s The Crucible: those who take their seats and, when the curtain rises, wonder, Why’s it set in a classroom? and the other half (please let it be more than half) that nods and thinks, Of course it’s in a classroom. Van Hove’s electrifying and audacious staging achieves what more revivals should: It makes old work seem new, blows away the dust and exposes caulked cracks. The Belgian director’s regular designer Jan Versweyveld has built a florescent-lit unit set with a forbidding chalkboard inscribed with severe maxims such as “The dutiful child promises, I will fear God and honour the king.” Staging concept understood: Both young and old of 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, are to be tutored in the advanced grammar of superstition and state violence. On a different level, Van Hove is schooling New Yorkers on how to revitalize our theatrical canon. Arthur Miller’s penetrating study of the Salem witch trials, first seen in 1953 as a critique of red-baiting, is now less about McCarthyism than Trumpist hordes ascendant.
The production avoids overt reference to contemporary headlines, but resonances with today's religious hypocrisy and xenophobia are hard to ignore. Judge Danforth (imperious and vulturine Ciarán Hinds) jails suspected witches, hangs them or forces confessions. Neighbor informs on neighbor. Fear of spiritual pollution by outsiders and collusion with unseen forces drives the prosecutorial frenzy. Upright farmer and onetime adulterer John Proctor (Ben Whishaw) is one of Salem’s stauncher citizens dragged into Danforth’s court after hysterical accusations leveled by Proctor’s former lover, Abigail (Saoirse Ronan, compelling if a bit too impassive).
Miller’s masterpiece, still a model of post-Ibsenite drama, holds up: Society is forever torn between preserving its power structures and extending freedoms. Those caught in the middle pay the highest price. By the end, as Proctor and his betrayed but still-loving wife, Elizabeth (Sophie Okonedo), meet one last time, bloody lashings down his back mark our tragic hero as a torture victim in an age of terror. Elizabeth, stiff of gait and covered in chalky white powder, looks as if she’s lived through a bombing in Syria.
The perfect companion to Van Hove’s equally stunning A View from the Bridge this fall, The Crucible has to be seen—even if not every flourish works. A girl levitates between scenes; after intermission, a wolfish dog trots across stage: Some may cry regietheater overkill. Still, the cast is ridiculously stuffed with talent, including Bill Camp as an agonized Reverend John Hale, Jason Butler Harner as the conniving Reverend Samuel Parris and Tavi Gevinson as the repentant witness Mary Warren. Philip Glass’s eerie hymns and some spectacular effects also make this the plain-scariest Crucible I’ve ever seen. The country beyond the walls of the Walter Kerr may be damned, but inside, Van Hove is wrestling with the angels.—David Cote
Walter Kerr Theatre (Broadway). By Arthur Miller. Directed by Ivo van Hove. With Saorise Ronan, Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo, Ciaran Hinds, Tavi Gevinson, Jason Butler Harner. Running time: 2hrs 45mins. One intermission.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote