In “Witch,” Jen Silverman’s delightful recasting of the obscure 1621 tragicomedy “The Witch of Edmonton,” characters find themselves in Jacobean dress and Jacobean circumstances, but they speak like Americans today. Nary a “prithee” or “forsooth” to be heard.
“We’ll do an avail check,” one promises, when arranging a meeting.
“This is all cone of silence,” another warns, before revealing a secret.
Silverman’s dialogue accomplishes so much, so succinctly, that it establishes itself right away as the biggest star of the Geffen Playhouse’s starry production. By swapping out the 400-year-old vernacular of playwriting team William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford, Silverman lays bare the relatable emotions of their weird, mostly forgotten play.
“The Witch of Edmonton” first captured her imagination, Silverman has said, partly because of its empathetic portrait — rare for the era — of a complex, misunderstood woman. Under the direction of Marti Lyons, Silverman’s “Witch” sends up the way we talk today, which owes so much to corporate culture and self-help literature. We sure sound different from people in the 17th century. But have we really changed?
Maura Tierney (“ER” and “The Affair”) glows with wry intelligence as the witch of the play’s title, Elizabeth Sawyer — who’s actually not a witch, just a woman the villagers have chosen to fear and mock. “Wherever I go, people are like, ‘You made my cow sick, you made my thatch burn,’” she says matter-of-factly, like a sympathetic stranger in the checkout line. Many in the audience will recognize the frustration of being cast in a limiting social role, of being the object of assumptions and expectations.
Meanwhile, the devil is making the rounds in the neighborhood, trading hearts’ desires for souls. As played by the magnetic Evan Jonigkeit, he’s a fast-rising junior salesman, polite, a good listener, deeply attuned to human psychology. Most insidiously of all, he believes in what he’s doing.
“The training manual advises us to think of ourselves as ‘merchants of hope,’” he says. “Let’s face it, capitalism has its difficulties ... but there’s something really satisfying in sitting down with someone and saying: Tell me what you hope for.”
He starts with the landed gentry. The widowed Sir Arthur (bluff, sad-eyed Brian George) is concerned about his legacy. His son, Cuddy (the irresistible Will Von Vogt), is his obvious heir, except that Cuddy spends all his time Morris dancing with his troupe, giving rise to rumors that his “favorite flavor may not be ‘wife.’”
To Cuddy’s horror, Sir Arthur has transferred his paternal hopes to a peasant, Frank Thorney (dashing Ruy Iskandar), whom he has welcomed into his castle and given a fine horse, and for whom he is arranging a marriage. The hitch in this plan: Frank already is secretly married to the servant Winnifred (sweet, sarcastic Vella Lovell).
Buying their souls proves child’s play for the devil, but oddly, he doesn’t fare as well with outcast Elizabeth, who on paper has much incentive to change her destiny. Intrigued, he returns with a new pitch, and then another, until the two are spending all their time together, “off the clock,” he assures her — and he’s forgotten all about the events he set in motion over at the castle.
This unexpected connection between witch and devil is the emotional and intellectual heart of “Witch,” and the way it develops is purely Silverman’s invention. In “The Witch of Edmonton,” the devil appears to Elizabeth as a black dog named Tom. (Told you it was weird.) You don’t need to know anything about the original to enjoy Silverman’s riff on it, but it’s fun to read it afterward to see what she chose to use and what she didn’t.
She has played equally fast and loose with the other story lines, which initially come across as hilarious palate cleansers, filled with delicious visual surprises. Of course, a Faustian plot isn’t complete without the comeuppance, and Jacobean writers really loved to pile on the agonies, but Silverman seems less interested in them, and the endings in “Witch” don’t work as well as the beginnings. Cuddy’s devolves into a cringe-inducing interpretive dance that seems to last forever. And in a play with such a feminist bent, it’s a little deflating that the devil, rather than Elizabeth, gets the last word.
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