Curtains: Arizona Curriculum Theater's Topical, Disturbing Salem: 1692

At least three excellent classic 20th-century plays are presented regularly by high schools, which tends to taint them for anyone who was first exposed to them there: Arsenic and Old Lace, Thornton Wilder's Our Town (which I wish I could have squeezed into the "Curtains" schedule when Fountain Hills Community Theater presented it earlier this month), and Arthur Miller's The Crucible. As I've suggested before, such plays can be ever so entertaining and moving when presented by a real theater.

When The Crucible premièred in 1953, McCarthyism was in full flower, and Miller's intent was to use historical events (the 17th-century witch hysteria, ensuing trials, and executions in Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony) as an allegory for the U.S. Government's paranoia and persecution of Communist Party members and sympathizers. (Three years later, Miller was summoned before the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities and asked to "name names.") Arizona Curriculum Theater's current production, Salem: 1692, features some of the same real-life characters as The Crucible and then departs from it in crucially creepy, evocative, even more historically accurate ways.

We, the audience, are the captive congregation/spectators in a claustrophobic meeting house/courtroom (it all kind of ran together back then) as clergymen/judges bring in three screaming, sobbing, trembling teenage girls who claim to be spiritually tormented by the Devil's power channeled through a local woman, Bridget Bishop (played with brave helplessness by Gail Rae), who happens to be a little less of a rigidly conformist Puritan than her neighbors -- ripe for ridicule and scapegoating by a fearful, oppressed little clique that tends to get carried away by their passion for rooting out Satan's influence. Bishop was hanged based on the girls' word and nothing more. Some of her accusers and the court officials later repented their actions and begged forgiveness of God and the survivors of Bishop and other victims.

Every word of the script (compiled and directed by James David Porter, who also plays Judge William Stoughton, who presides over the proceedings and leads us in the singing of authentic psalms) is taken directly from transcripts recorded at the time. This is how our society handled stuff before we had a Constitution with checks and balances, separation of church and state, a court system with rules of evidence, and the tolerance born of experiencing human diversity. Is progressivism really so terrible, with this as the alternative? Food for thought.

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Danette D'Anjou's severe, homespun-looking costumes underscore how little pleasure or individuality was part of the colonists' lives. It was a harsh and intimidating time. Just as we have our urban-legend genre of folklore nowadays, our earlier counterparts had to find someone responsible for the illness and death of children and livestock, imperiling the community's very survival, or the horror and uncertainty would have been overwhelming. Returning to that atmosphere is chilling and enlightening at once.

Salem: 1692 continues tonight through Saturday night, March 27, at 8 p.m. at Soul Invictus, 1022 Grand Avenue. Call 1-888-343-4-ACT for tickets, or order here. Admission is $12 in advance and $15 at the door -- and the show's been selling well.

In other news from the local theater community, new but familiar tenants will reportedly be presenting live performances in the Soul Invictus space after Phoenix Rising Artists Collective moves out later this spring, so we won't be losing one of our favorite venues right away.

And you can save $8 on a pair of seats to Patsy's Bridal Shower at Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Mesa through April 18; order here or call 490-325-6700.

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