Vinegar Tom at SLU: Fiery, Feminist Theatre That Pulls No Punches

click to enlarge In Vinegar Tom, the past is the present. - John Lamb
John Lamb
In Vinegar Tom, the past is the present.
Vinegar Tom is the name of an ugly, foul-smelling black cat who lurks around the periphery of the rural English village in Caryl Churchill's Brechtian play about the lives of a group of women. He's spoken to by the characters but never seen by the audience, which is unusual only because he's the cause of everyone's downfall. Or is he? Churchill's Vinegar Tom is nominally concerned with the witch trials of 17th century England, but the deeper we go in Tom Martin's taut staging of the play currently at Saint Louis University, the more clear it becomes that the witch hunt has never really ceased.

Alice (Taylor Steward) is a young woman who enjoys casual sex and dreams of escaping her nowhere village. We first meet her as she's being screwed by an anonymous, well-to-do man (Joseph T. Denk) in a ditch on a cold November night. The Man tells Alice he'll take her away from all this, but only if she admits that he is the devil and swears allegiance to him. Alice -- desperate, trapped and eager for a change of scenery -- agrees, but only if she can bring her child along. He laughs and leaves her there in the muck, his game finished.

Steward conveys well Alice's bleak optimism. She's undesirable as a wife because she's a single mother, but she still believes there's an escape route if she can just find it. Whether it's an understanding man, learning a trade or witchcraft, she's up for it, even though each path requires a sacrifice. But what does she have to lose? As she tells her only friend, Susan (Gabrielle M. Greer), "Any time I'm at peace, they say it's a sin."

On the other, nicer side of the village lives Betty (Elizabeth Meinders), whose father has recently betrothed her to a man she's never met. Betty's against the marriage, and has been deemed ill for daring to say as much. Now subject to medical treatments that amount to torture -- bloodletting, blistering and fasting -- Betty is going mad.

Between these two poles is Margery (Katy Keating), whose husband is a bully and has a wandering eye that lands far too often on poor Alice, but Margery's at least a farmwife with shared property and a respectable place in the community. Her troubles begin with a quarrel with the neighbor, Joan (Alyssa Ward), mother of Alice. Joan is a drunk, aged and ugly and socially marginalized. Ward is a talented actress who can put a lethal spin on a line, but Joan might be her most fearsome, rasping performance. Scorned by society as a mass, she takes Margery's rejection personally and turns on her former friend like an adder, cursing her with venomous intent. Keating's Margery takes the curse like a woman, shoulders squared and feet planted firmly as she shouts back, but what does she gain for her strength? A curse, a lonelier life and troubles out the wazoo.

From this falling out spring the first charges of witchcraft, first against Joan, then Alice. There's nothing but hearsay against them, but it doesn't take much to ruin woman's reputation, does it? A whisper here, a statement made in jest taken out of context there, and suddenly she's a slut. Or a bitch. Or a witch. All these terms carry the same meaning: Evil, untouchable and ruined.

Churchill's play comes with its own audience, a chorus of young women who comment on the action through songs about how you still desire sex as an old woman, and question the audience about our desire to see "evil women" in our entertainment. These singers are dressed as modern women and never take the stage themselves, but they do break the plane by leaning on the edge of the stage to more closely watch what's happening. Their songs are eerie, accusatory and blunt -- not the plaintive cries of women who are being oppressed, but pregnant with the anger of women who are sick of being oppressed.

It's a hell of a show, unrelentingly bleak, darkly funny and as scathing a look at gender politics as an election year could possibly require.

Vinegar Tom: Written by Caryl Churchill and directed by Tom Martin. Presented by Saint Louis University Theatre Department at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Xavier Hall on the Saint Louis University campus (3733 West Pine Mall; 314-977-3327). Tickets are $7 to $9.

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