"Evil women—is that what you want?"
Irony oozes from that question, which is asked at the end of Vinegar Tom, Caryl Churchill's play about a 17th century witch hunt. Accusations of witchcraft spread through the story like a contagion, but there are no evil women in Churchill's world. There are only women who have been brainwashed, brutalized and weaponized by evil men.
Vinegar Tom is the second play to be produced by the Theatre Company, which was founded last year. It's being presented as a podcast, which spares us from having to see simulations of its many horrors, including hangings. The play may have been published in 1976, but it's a feminist fable for the ages—and a chilling portrayal of how patriarchal societies pit women against each other.
Churchill is an imaginative and inventive writer who has been hailed as one of Britain's greatest living playwrights—Portland theatergoers may remember her tea-and-the-apocalypse play Escaped Alone, which was performed by Shaking the Tree Theatre last year. With Vinegar Tom, she offers a collection of compelling ideas, but not an emotionally realized work of art. Churchill's characters are light on personality and heavy on symbolism—which means it's up to director Jen Rowe, who co-founded the Theatre Company with Brandon Woolley, and the actors to infuse them with personality.
Vinegar Tom doesn't have a protagonist, but it does have a catalyst for its chaos: Margery (Morgan Cox), a woman who lives in a bleak English village with her vicious, philandering husband, Jack (Chris Harder). Dismayed by their withering livestock, Margery blames Joan (Diane Kondrat), a poor woman whom she accuses of being a witch.
The claims against Joan, whose cat is named Vinegar Tom, are arbitrary, but Margery clings to them as if they were her salvation. In a ludicrous attempt to lift Joan's "curse," she and Jack burn a cow, creating a stink and igniting a surge of scapegoating and betrayal. Multiple women are accused of witchcraft, a witch hunter (Sam Dinkowitz) arrives in the village, and violent words give way to actual violence.
In a cast replete with impressive voices, Kondrat stands out. In marvelously rough tones, she conveys Joan's conviction that if people believe she's a witch, she may as well act the part. "Jack is lucky I didn't bewitch him to death, and Margery…but she was kind to me long ago," she declares. "But I killed their cows like I killed 10 cows last year, and the great storm and tempest comes when I call it."
None of this is true. Joan is no more a witch than Alice (Alanna Fagan), who pretends to undo Jack's impotence to stop him from pestering her. Vinegar Tom is about the lies that men project onto women—and the moment when embracing those lies becomes safer and easier than speaking truth.
If Vinegar Tom is both frustrating and fascinating, it's because the story's nameless village seems less like a community than a laboratory where Churchill conducts experiments on her characters. Each character is a victim, a villain or a combination of both. The actors attack the play with all of their emotional might, but there's only so much they can do for a story populated by archetypes instead of human beings.
The flaws of Vinegar Tom prevent it from impacting you the way it wants to, but that's no reason to dismiss the play. Potent performances aren't the production's only triumph—it also features Cameron McFee's sublime sound design, which ranges from the specific (the clacking of crickets) to the surreal (the eerie ambience heard in the final scene).
McFee adds tension and texture, not only to the village but to the present-day interludes that punctuate the play. That includes the rush of women's voices that concludes the story, which sounds like an ad for a misogynistic witch porno ("you can be sucked off by a succubus," it promises). Churchill refuses to let us forget that the crimes of Vinegar Tom live on in other forms, including modern fantasies. It's a disturbing thought—and it fits perfectly in a play that seeks to empower audiences by terrifying them into action.
LISTEN: Vinegar Tom streams at thetheatreco.org/vinegartom through Nov. 14. $10.