Remember the traditional Greek chorus in Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite? Their choppy, shouted admonitions steered the protagonist through the story in a hilariously anachronistic way. Vinegar Tom, TheatreWorks' collaboration with the UCCS theater department, attempts the same concept, except instead of juxtaposing togas with Manhattanites, the contradicting parties are puritans and burlesque performers.
Written in 1976 by Caryl Churchill, Vinegar Tom explores female oppression and persecution, focusing on a witch hunt in 17th-century England with an accompaniment of songs, staged as burlesque by director Laura Tesman. The puritan story follows a group of intersecting families -- Margery (Heather Collins in a chillingly good portrayal of a bitter woman) and Jack (Brandon Jacobs), an industrious farming couple; Joan (the always entertaining Leah Chandler-Mills), a dipsomaniac widow, and her daughter, Alice (Rebecca Carter); Susan (Vivina McGinley), a woman with reproductive woes that have resulted in yet another unwanted pregnancy; and Betty (Melissa Clarke), the free-spirited young girl who has refused to marry and is locked away and being treated for "hysteria." The story chronicles Alice's, Susan's, and later, Betty's visits to the Cunning woman (Tammy Smith), a healer who specializes in potions and charms, and the inevitable arrival of sadistic witch hunter Packer (Brian Mann) and his creepy henchwoman, Goody (Kourtney Crutcher).
In stark contrast, the frolicking, ribald routines of the burlesquers mock and almost belie the gravity of the tragic story they are commenting on (in Cockney accents, some of which are more believable than others). The vaudevillian routines breaking up scenes in the first act are straight out of a George and Gracie routine, with bon mots like "My boyfriend stood me up last night -- I got heavy on his lap" and "I got a kick out of kissing Joe last night -- my dad caught me," uttered by ravishing beauties in corsets and heels.
It takes a while to get used to this combination of two mediums. The antics of the burlesque rendered some members of the audience unsure of when to laugh during the main plot, especially during a scene involving Margery churning butter.
However, the second act explores a more serious side of the burlesquers, and the songs are more poignant, with more sober commentary on female stereotypes. Two of the more successful songs include the uproarious prop-laden "Give Me My Body Back" and a tender song about behavior and blame performed, in a truly amazing piece of choreography, on a swing by Betty, the only puritan to step out of character and sing.
The set, built by Marisa Frantz, is understated and lovely. The simple screen of a leafless tree is striking, and the flashing review lights that frame the stage are unobtrusive when not lit, compelling when framing the burlesquers.
The final scene, a brilliant comic duo performed by tuxedoed Chandler-Mills and Smith, sums up many of the questions raised by the songs and the story. They ask why women are more likely than men to be accused of witchcraft and run through a comical litany of reasons including most of the seven deadly sins (and a few extra).
Ultimately, Vinegar Tom reminds us that even though we're less likely to blame the devil or womankind for our misfortune these days, we're still the bearers of a legacy of heartache, persecution and injustice.
-- Bettina Swigger
Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, 3955 Cragwood Drive
Thursdays-Saturdays, through March 13, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday matinee at 2 p.m.; Sunday matinee at 4 p.m.
Tickets: $12-15; call 262-3232 or go to www.uccstheatreworks.com for more info.