“Witch” begins with Maura Tierney facing downstage and speaking directly to the Geffen Playhouse audience, some of whom are seated not more than 2 feet away. She is playing Elizabeth Sawyer, the town’s outcast, whom the devil assumes will be an ideal customer for his offer: Why not get a little revenge on the residents who’ve wronged you for years — in exchange for your soul?
It’s a temptation that the play’s other characters, like the king’s shunned son and the farmer who eyes the throne, can’t resist. But the devil, played with charm by Evan Jonigkeit, is intrigued when Elizabeth holds out on his offer. “Yes but you see the thing is nobody says No,” he says, flummoxed.
What he doesn’t initially understand is that women are quite used to dulling our desires and quieting our existences. We’re told from a young age not to be too loud, too difficult, too emotional. And we sure as hell can’t lose our temper.
So I surprised even myself with my uninhibited responses to Friday night’s performance of “Witch.” I laughed loudly at its jokes, like when Elizabeth cleverly calls out the devil’s unconscious gender bias. And I audibly sighed at its truths, like when Elizabeth laments the townspeople’s inexplicable hatred toward her.
“I’ve never done anything to them. I barely do anything at all,” she says. The devil’s response is too true: “You exist, and that’s enough.”
Though based on a Jacobean play from 1621, Jen Silverman’s dark comedy so intuitively illustrates how women are often seen and treated, regardless of time or place: scorned at large, silenced at best. Like Tierney at the top of the show, this work stares directly at the women in the audience, and it truly sees them.
Which made what happened next so appalling.
A climactic moment in “Witch” centers on another female character — a nearly invisible maid, played by Vella Lovell. The man to whom she’s secretly married betrays her three times, as money and power are dangled within his reach. With each betrayal, the women scattered throughout the audience gasped in unison, louder and louder with each successive shock.
And after the third gasp, we all laughed together — maybe because we felt such delight in letting ourselves get swept up in the moment, or maybe because we heard how many others felt exactly the same way. What a joyful few seconds it was, to feel understood not only by a piece of art but by one another.
Then an older man seated behind me said loudly, “It’s just a play, folks. Relax!”
I turned around and caught a glimpse of him, smiling so smugly, his palm resting in his wife’s hands.
I wish I could have told him that his outburst about our outbursts (if gasps and laughs are outbursts) betrayed the DNA of theater itself.
The audience did immediately quiet down, and the show went on. I couldn’t help but feel betrayed. Why was our collective reaction so unacceptable to him?
The policing of other theatergoers’ reactions has been a topic of discussion for years. Actor Kelvin Moon Loh made headlines in 2015 when he defended a child, whom he described as autistic, after the boy yelped loudly during a Broadway performance of “The King and I.”
“His voice pierced the theater. The audience started to rally against the mother and her child to be removed. I heard murmurs of, ‘Why would you bring a child like that to the theater?’” Loh, an understudy in the production, wrote on Facebook. “When did we as theater people, performers and audience members become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others?”
Lin-Manuel Miranda was passive-aggressively shamed for having an audibly good time watching “My Fair Lady” on Broadway last year. “Well, I didn’t know this show had so many laughs — you were certainly enjoying yourself,” the fellow theatergoer told the “Hamilton” creator and Tony winner, who tweeted about the exchange.
“There is ALWAYS the type of theatergoer that defines themselves by excluding others,” Miranda reassured. “You could WRITE musicals, and they’ll still try to make you feel like you don’t belong. Don’t you dare let ‘em. You love theater? You belong.”
To some people, purchasing a theater ticket means buying a product — the show as scripted, as directed, as acted out night after night. They might argue audience outbursts can thwart that experience for everyone else. Shushing is the Right Thing for the entire audience, or so they think.
After the “Witch” curtain call, I spoke to a couple of other women who saw the performance, and we mourned a moment that was robbed from us by that man’s scolding.
I wish I had found him after the show. I would have reminded him that the main draw of theater is that it is live. That every performance is unique and finite and belonging to the strangers who experience it together. That whatever happens or “goes wrong” in it is in fact what’s right about the art form. And that actors act in theater specifically to hear the instant reaction; they deliver punchlines and don’t have to wait months for that joke to land.
I wish I could have told him that his outburst about our outbursts (if gasps and laughs are outbursts) betrayed the DNA of theater itself. Unless he plans on buying out venues to watch plays alone, he’s much better off consuming entertainment in the privacy of his own home. (Seriously, stay away from movie theaters, sir!)
But I didn’t find that man or say any of that. In a way, he was right when he said, “It’s just a play, folks.” It’s just a piece of art written by a woman and directed by a woman (Marti Lyons) that offers something a little bit extra for the women in the audience. It’s just a 95-minute moment that allows women to laugh cathartically with other women about the obstacles we face every day. It’s just a passing place where, for once, we don’t have to temper our reactions to a palatable plane. We can crack up and gasp and cry freely; in fact, the cast and creatives call for it.
That man also was quite right in telling us to “relax.” I definitely will do that. I will relax by watching more theater and reacting as I damn well please.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 29
Info: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes