History shows that an excess of religious fervour can have less-than-virtuous results. A prime example is the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts. There, a fanatical pursuit of those thought to serve the Devil caused the deaths of 20 innocents, and imprisonment of many more.
The story of Abigail/1702 by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (writer and co-producer of TV series including Glee and Big Love) is set 10 years after those trials. Whilst having some commendable features, this production suffered distractions whenever it struck a tone unsuited to the gravity of the story.
Abigail/1702 follows on from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). Although Miller’s play is a fictional account of the time around the Salem trials, it was based on historical events and figures.
One such figure was the child Abigail Williams. In The Crucible, Abigail is a teenager. She and her friends danced naked in a night-time forest ritual. Abigail had intended to strike a bargain with the Devil to drive John Proctor from his wife Elizabeth. When caught and accused of witchcraft, to secure their own freedom the girls accused certain townsfolk of being witches, blaming their influence for the girls’ behaviour. Having given testimony that condemned to death those who wouldn’t confess to witchcraft, Abigail fled to Boston to avoid social and legal consequences.
History doesn’t tell us what became of Abigail Williams. In presenting a vision of this, Abigail/1702 began with Abigail (Emma Caldwell) giving an account of her hasty departure from Salem pursued by uncle Reverend Parrish (Kieran Law), and how she started to make a life in Boston. On deciding she couldn’t return to Salem, she sought penance through treating the ill in a pox house run by Margaret Hale (Samantha Hill).
In this new life, Abigail sheds her past to become Ruth, dedicating herself to an austere life of service. She follows religious teachings to conceal herself from the Devil. Ten years after the Salem events, Abigail now runs the pox house. Seaman John Brown (Pat Moonie) arrives, ill and unable to afford a town doctor. He needs medical help, and to keep his own past hidden.
As Brown’s treatment proceeds, he and Abigail grow closer. However, trusting someone doesn’t always mean that it’s a good idea to reveal a secret.
In the programme, a note from director Elizabeth Millington stated that the production “focused on creating a heightened and dream-like atmosphere”. Whilst it achieved this for brief moments, I was disappointed to find that all too often our immersion in the world of Abigail/1702 was punctured by discordant elements.
Examples were numerous. Sat inside the theatre before the start, a smoky atmosphere smelling of burnt wood, dim lighting and vaguely unsettling soundscape created a sense of foreboding. This was vaporised by a flippant announcement that the use of mobile phones may attract the Devil.
Maybe this and other pre-show frivolities wouldn’t have mattered if what followed rebuilt and maintained the dream-like atmosphere. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this. The lighting contributed significantly to my distraction. As we were seated in a U-shape, the spill-over of light made me aware of the audience throughout.
Some mildly humorous moments sabotaged periods when a tense mood was established for not such a great payoff. Other irregularities related to the role of the Devil (Rob Gaetano). Immediately obvious was his costuming. Other characters had simple, peasant like garb that was appropriate for the times. However, Gaetano – in a fur-trimmed modern suit – looked more like a Hollywood pimp, which wouldn’t seem to suit the conceptualisation of Lucifer in 1702.
Gaetano had turns of playing a quite smarmy and campy Satan, in the vein of a Rowan Atkinson sketch (“You can call me Toby, if you like…”). Making him seem more mischievous than malevolent detracted from the importance of some of his scenes with Caldwell. I found other interludes to be ill fitting. One was a brief thriller-type scene where Moonie was lit red holding an axe. Another time, after some levity had broken the solemn spell of the tale, having a character drift and pirouette across the stage in black hooded robes almost encouraged me to laugh as I would at schlock-horror.
Clearly there are a lot of ideas in Boutique Theatre company. My experience of this production suggests that some filtering is necessary. They know how to do this; I recall their offering for 2015 Melbourne Fringe, The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow by Rolin Jones. That production had basic props and low-to-no-fi special effects, yet the performances made it one of the best independent productions I’d seen for a long time. I suspect that Abigail/1702 would have benefitted from similar restraint.
Scenes between Caldwell and Moonie were the highlights. Moonie brought a roguish charm to his Brown. Caldwell showed superior control of her accent amongst the ensemble. As a servant of God, she gave a credible performance as a re-born pious woman, her resolve gently unravelling as she wondered if ten years of penance was enough to earn her a reprieve from a life of self-denial.
Although sometimes submerged under production choices, the piece raises an important issue of whether atonement for sins can ever lead to redemption. This goes to contemporary issues of crime and punishment, such as how “Bali Nine” heroin smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran formed rehabilitation programmes for themselves and other inmates in Kerobokan Prison, yet were executed despite their reform.
More broadly, this production of Abigail/1702 is a timely prompt given current violent events, encouraging a community to ask itself – just like Salem after the witch trials – what should we do with those who have fallen from grace, and, how should we balance compassion with justice?
Director: Elizabeth Millington Featuring: Emma Caldwell, Rob Gaetano, Joshua Simos-Garner, Samantha Hill, Kieran Law, Pat Moonie, Jessica Tanner Assistant Director: Michaela Bedel Set and Costume Design: Nick Casey Lighting Design: Clare Springett Sound Design: Mischa Grünenberg Technical Coordinator: Samantha Cunningham Producer: Tegan Jones Assistant Producer: Saran Jones
Old Council Chambers – Victorian Trades Hall, 54 Victoria Street, Carlton
Performance: Friday 15 July 2016 – 8.00pm
Season continues to 30 July 2016
Information and Bookings: www.boutiquetheatre.com.au
Image: Pat Moonie features in Abigail/1702 – photo by Rebekah Kamsky
Review: Jason Whyte