“Witch Hunt” Pursues Untold Stories, at Those Women, Berkeley
Carol Lashof Gives Voices to Salem’s Silenced Victims
by Jordan Freed
Descending the narrow staircase into La Val’s Subterranean Theater feels right for the eerie mood of “Witch Hunt.” The basement space perfectly recreates the claustrophobia of panicked, paranoid colonial Salem, Massachusetts. A dark, misty forest and townscape spread across the walls, compelling us to imagine what infernal things might live there.
Set Designer Quinnton Barringer accents the back wall with a huge, falling cross that spreads its imposing limbs across the ceiling. The dramatic design by Barringer echoes Carol Lashof’s suspenseful script, making it clear that Christianity may be a comfort to some, but a peril to others.
Tituba (striking Renee Rogoff), an indigenous South American woman, has been enslaved by the Parris family. Despite Tituba’s forced conversion to Christianity, the family constantly reminds her she’ll always be a “heretic savage.”
For decades, Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” has defined the Salem Witch Trials. Miller’s 50s play uses accusations of “witchcraft” to fight McCarthyism. But Miller centers his story on John Proctor, a wealthy white landowner. In “Witch Hunt,” Carol Lashof smartly focuses on the actual victims: women, particularly indigenous women.
Tituba, a beautiful storyteller, enchants young Betty Parris (engaging Sofia Angelopoulos) with tales from her Native culture. Tituba’s tales of women turning into animals and great trees sprouting overnight mesmerize us, along with Betty. But her parents fear Tituba’s imaginative influence—sounding alarm bells for them—about Natives, about women, about religion.
Renee Rogoff imbues Tituba with a quiet intensity, fueled by her years of abuse at the hands of U.S. colonists. The up-close nature of the space allows us to see Rogoff’s dynamic performance—even in her eyes.
Fire and brimstone Reverend Samuel Parris (spirited Nathan Bogner), the family patriarch, rules the house with his rigid, demanding Puritan faith. His loyal wife, Elizabeth (outstanding Kitty Torres) wants Tituba sold off in Boston, because she fears the Native influence.
When Betty begins to act strangely, her mother raises suspicions about a sinister origin. Local gossip Mary Sibley (fervent Julie Ann Valdez) insists that a doctor must confirm witchcraft as the cause of Betty’s distress. Tituba’s husband, John (gentle Steven Flores), pleads with her to suppress her Native stories, fearing the townsfolk. We share John’s sense of dread—despite Tituba’s insistence and bravery.
Lashof’s script maintains a macabre mood as we anticipate Tituba’s fate. Director Elizabeth Vega skillfully heightens every moment with intimate and touching staging that keeps us in the center of the action. “Witch Hunt” is an important and timely production, well worth a visit to the intimate Northside theater.
“Witch Hunt” by Carol S. Lashof, directed by Elizabeth Vega, by Those Women Productions, at La Val’s Subterranean Theater, 1834 Euclid Ave, Berkeley, through Sunday, August 4, 2019. Info: thosewomenproductions.com
Cast: Sofia Angelopoulos, Nathan Bogner, Steven Flores, Renee Rogoff, Kitty Torres, and Julie Ann Valdez.
Banner photo: Sofia Angelopoulo, Kitty Torres, Renee Rogoff, and Nathan Bogner.