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'Judith' & 'Vinegar Tom' Explore Women's Strength Throughout History

Potomac Theatre Project’s double bill shines at Atlantic Stage 2.

For Potomac Theatre Project, the works of playwrights Howard Barker and Caryl Churchill are old friends-- they've produced a Barker play every year since they moved to New York, including several American or world premieres, while this is their fourth Churchill play. And you can sense that polish from the second the first actor on stage opens his mouth, for these are texts that require an expert touch to bring to life. Judith and Vinegar Tom have much in common, historical tales with a distinctly modern sensibility toward death, philosophy and the societal struggles of women.

And yet, one play is an adaptation of a biblical tale about the near-defeat of Israel, and the other is a cabaret about witches. Viewed through a single lens, they tell a tale spanning millennia about the non-traditional places from which women draw their power, and the overwhelming limitations of poverty and prejudice. But they are also both fascinating and engaging performances that will take you further than you might ever expect theater to go.

So pay attention, because every word is crucial.

Judith by Howard Barker

Loosely based on the biblical tale about the woman who saved her people and became the "Mother of Israel" after infiltrating the tent of invading Assyrian general Holofernes and beheading him, Judith is a chilling tale of strength, cruelty and lies. In Barker's version, Judith and her Servant are quickly drawn into Holofernes' philosophical musings about the nature of death, violence and the inability to love. But the brilliant general soon meets his match in this hesitant widow, whose seeming inexperience belies a strategy far darker than the Assyrian leader may have ever expected.

This is true contemporary verse, and you need to be paying complete attention to catch every word--and even then you will still likely not catch every nuance. The characters move seamlessly in and out of philosophical digressions and direct dialogue, forming entrancing rhythms as they seek the truth or to wrap their opponent in lies. The entire play in fact reads as one giant chess game, only with three players instead of two and an entire nation of people at stake, and you can never tell when someone is lying.

Judith is a drama of three extremely powerful figures discovering the strength of the others, and is overwhelmingly cruel, sexual and vulgar in word and deed from the very beginning. Holofernes, played by Alex Draper, is the most straightforward character, and perhaps all the more appealing for his elegance, propriety and unquestioned sense of authority. Pamela J. Gray's Judith is far more mysterious, undergoing a frightening transformation from uneasy trickster to an almost goddess of sexuality and deceit, which leads to a fascinating question: when you defeat the conqueror, what does that make you?

Patricia Buckley's Servant is a rogue element, a powerful presence on stage even if she does read more as a rhetorical device than a fully fleshed out character. For all of these characters, the historical specificity of Israel and its meaning fades into the background; the goal of their encounter is simply to win the game. The costuming and set design of the piece, an odd pastiche of period and contemporary items, seems like it is attempting to evoke such timelessness, but the effect is more confusing and disjointed than transcendent.

Still, the focus of Judith is on the language, and that is where the piece excels.

Vinegar Tom by Caryl Churchill

It is difficult to see a play about 17th century witch trials without thinking of Arthur Miller. In this modern, feminist update on The Crucible, however, witchcraft gets an entirely new spin as Churchill illuminates the underlying tensions behind the explosive events, namely poverty, single motherhood and the prejudices they inspire. Brutally honest about the roles of sex, childbearing and abortion in this historical world, Vinegar Tom describes the terrifying true cruelty of the witch trials, and the few strong women who manage to hold their heads high throughout it all.

We witness the events of this provincial English town largely through the eyes of Alice, the rebellious dreamer borne of an unwed mother and an unwed mother herself, who seeks to escape destitution by wooing traveling men and using the charms of "cunning woman" Ellen. On the other side of the debate is Margery, the good, hardworking farmwife who can only come to one conclusion after her husband and home become afflicted with mysterious ailments: the curses of Alice's beggar mother, Joan, must be the cause. The townsfolk try to handle the witchcraft on their own using the cunning woman's tricks, but everything spirals out of control when the witch hunter comes to town, and no one is safe from his accusations.

For most of the play, witchcraft is not a terrifying presence at all, but simply a fact of daily life and far less insidious than the scourges of poverty or domestic abuse. In fact, the actual existence or lack thereof of supernatural forces is completely irrelevant to the piece; all that matters are its trappings, from charms and dolls to a man who claims to be the devil, and how that evidence appears when everything comes to a head.

And to add to everything else that is going on, Vinegar Tom is a cabaret, in which a trio of young women in modern dress take the stage to sing sultry melodies to accompany the action in the play. The music is beautiful and alluring, but might leave one wondering why this performance is not just a standard musical, with the characters on stage singing their own songs. The singers' presence also takes away from the gorgeous, intricate historical costumes the rest of the cast are wearing, fully immersing us in the 17th century English countryside even as the set successfully incorporates more contemporary elements like scaffolding to add in a subtle urban association.

The acting in this piece is consistently strong, and women dominate the story exactly as they're meant to. Particularly engaging performances come from Tara Giordano as the eternally defiant Alice and Chelsea Melone as her more fragile friend Susan. Kathleen Wise's Margery demonstrates an intriguing mixture of pride and terror of her entire life falling apart, and is complemented well by Bill Army as her increasingly unstable husband Jack. And though she gets much less time on stage, there is something magnetic about Lucy Faust as the cunning woman, or "good witch," Ellen.

While both Vinegar Tom and Judith may have a bleak outlook on life, the overall effect of the double bill is a celebration of individual and communal strength in the face of the most atrocious evils. They are each expert performances, well worth the challenges of following the sometimes difficult language. And in the hands of the Potomac Theatre Project, the two texts have come to life.

Judith and Vinegar Tom play at Atlantic Stage 2 through August 8.

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