Bridget McCarthy ‘17/ Emertainment Monthly Stage Section Co-Editor
A Broadway play that lacks framing in time, place, and even dialect would appear on paper to be a confusing flop. Although Ivo van Hove’s production of The Crucible is not grounded in context, the floating–both literally and physically–only adds to the eeriness of Arthur Miller’s classic. This production blurs the line between hysteria and otherworldly powers, reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and recent indie movie The Witch.
Ivo van Hove portrays a Salem that submits to panic, compromising people’s sanity in the process. Abigail, played by Oscar-nominated actress Saoirse Ronan, embodies the human power acquired through sin and people’s fear of it. But where sin is present so is the Devil, and The Crucible does not neglect the possibility–or actual presence of a nonhuman evil. The curtain acts throughout the production as a barrier between what is actually happening, and what may be happening.
The Crucible opens up on a group of orderly schoolgirls in uniform, singing in parallel desks in front of a chalkboard, backs toward the audience. Just as soon as the curtain rises, it closes again. When it opens the second time, it reveals a minimalist set of the same desks tumbled across the stage. No schoolgirls. This technique is repeated when the curtain goes down on Betty, played by Elizabeth Teeter. Betty refuses to, or perhaps is unable to, wake up after dancing with the other girls in the woods. The curtain goes down on a motionless Betty, only to rise again on her floating midair.
When the girls are accusing townspeople of being witches, the barricade of glass windows breaks through with a powerful light and gust of wind, flooding the stage with papers and debris. Act two opens with nothing but a live wolf onstage, lingering for an uncomfortable period of time before leaving. In these scenes, Ivo van Hove opts for a subtle incorporation of the supernatural. There is no opening scene with naked girls conjuring sprits as there is in the 1996 film version, and there are no jump-out moments of pure terror–no cheap shock value. Instead, The Crucible contains snippets of paranormal scenes, creating a more long-term unsettling feeling, allowing the audience to progress into hysteria with the cast.
The Crucible maintains Miller’s 17-century Salem authenticity, but it is spoken in a wide range of accents. Saoirse Ronan has a mix of her actual Irish accent, which sometimes falls into a more English or even American tone. Ben Whishaw, who plays John Proctor, has a strictly British accent, and Tavi Gevinson who plays Mary has a modern, Midwestern American dialect. Also, although the dialogue sets the play in late 1600s Salem, the costumes, designed by Wojciech Dziedzic, are of 2016. All monochrome colors, the younger cast members wear modern schoolgirl outfits, some even with Doc Martens. The adults also wear black and gray suits and everyday clothes worn now.
The set, designed by Jan Versweyveld, is too minimal to discern any specific time period or place. Besides the chalkboard in the back, there are only a few desks or tables onstage at a time. There are no phones, televisions or any modern technology. Still, it definitely does not create an atmosphere that screams colonized New England. The lack of specific context throughout the show concerning time and place furthers the uneasiness of the whole production. It manifests a dream-like situation that feels firmly real but very out-of-place at the same time. The idea that nothing adds up doesn’t take away from The Crucible, but rather continues to blur the lines between humanity and something sinister.
The Crucible would not have worked without Philip Glass’ score beneath it, adding to the demise of the characters as their endless blaming continues. Lighting by Jan Versweyveld also contributes to the creepiness, as lights begin to twinkle on a chalkboard tree as the girls claim to see the devil in the courtroom.
Ben Whishaw, a soft-spoken smaller-framed man, appears an unlikely choice for the strong force that is John Proctor, previously played by Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson. But in a production where everything is topsy-turvy, the duality Whishaw gives the character works to his advantage. In her Broadway debut, Saoirse Ronan is fire in her icy portrayal of Abigail. Her face plays to the back of the audience, terrifying people with how real her depiction seems.
The Crucible doesn’t have the same empathetic resonance as Ivan von Hoe’s other Arthur Miller Broadway production, A View from the Bridge. But it does have a powerful component that has never been executed so well on Broadway before. Perhaps one of the most difficult emotions to captivate, this production ignites fear. Fear in heavenly judgment, human judgment, or a mix of both. The Crucible leaves audiences feeling unnerved long after the curtain closes, frightened it will rise again.