The story focuses on Abigail Williams, one of the four children whose behaviors and allegations in 1692 launched the hysteria in Salem Town which resulted in 150 arrests and 25 deaths including 19 people being hanged as witches. You can read the narrative of Abigail The Salem Witch Trials The Rock Opera at their website. Here, as in The Crucible, Abigail is portrayed as a young woman rather than the 11 year-old she was in real life, and that presents a problem for the drama. Whie we can accept that an 11-year old might not understand the consequences of her actions, the Abigail of ATSWTTRO is clearly old enough to know what will happen if she makes these accusations, and yet her motivations are a bit muddled. She and two others of the four girls are presented by the piece as acting as they are possessed in order to divert Reverend Parris’ attention from the fact that they have been going out into the woods and learning magic and polytheism from the family slave, Tituba. And that motivation might suffice, except that Abigail is presented has having already made a spiritual connection with another indian tribe and wears a feather in her hair that is presented to her by a native girl in the first scene. Abigail continues to wear the feather despite the fact that we are told that her parents were then killed by the Hurron. Is she rebelling against the patriarchal religion of the Puritans or saving her own skin? The story wants to have it both ways, but does not successfully convey either.
The performance space for this production is wildly inappropriate and egregiously misused by the production. The Shrine Room is, on most days, a dance club. While the space is reasonably large, the seating is confined to a narrow third of the space defined by two rows of columns. The stage is a band platform which might have been adequate except the production chose to put the four-piece rock combo at the back of the stage and project a movie largely duplicating the narrative above the performance. Thus, the audience’s attention is constantly being diverted from the live performance by the band and the movie, and, further, much of the action is forced onto the floor because there little space in front of the band remaining on the stage. Since there is no scenery, the sepia-toned movie (featuring the same cast) generally does the best job of putting the audience in the setting and telling the story, but, nevertheless, the live-performers are there trying to make due with cheap props and an over-abundance of disco lights. The props got unintentionally laughable when Giles Correy is crushed to death with gray pillows meant to be rocks: it looked like he was being tortured with the first tool of Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition: THE CUSHIONS!
Now, I must rant. The real performance killer was none of these. A show can survive cheap props and misguided multimedia. However, this show had the shittiest sound system, and sound tech that has ever been my misfortune to endure. Everything coming out over the speakers was squared-out and distorted to the point that only two of the actors (DANIEL KNOP as Minister Parris and CYNTHIA LEWIS as Abigail Williams) could be understood at all, not because the other actors were poor singers, but merely because the lead parts were written in the soprano and tenor range and could cut through the utter crap coming out of the disco monitors that hung throughout the space. The sound tech was to blame as well since the mix strategy seemed to be to max every channel at every moment to the edge of feedback (which occasionally failed). Towards the end of the show I was literally trying to figure out how to get to the mixing board on the second floor and whether it would be worth it to try to fight my way up there (even though I’ve never touched a mixing board). The only good news that while the system was wretched and loud, it was not loud enough to cause any damage and my ears were not ringing once I left the venue.
ATSWTTRO could be an interesting take on the material. The choice of goth make-up for the majority of the cast was intriguing, for instance, and swagger of many of the performers was appropriate for the music. However, the book does not successfully present a point of view. There are intriguing glimpses or conflicts between the polytheistic world-view of Tituba and the Puritan community, but that message is pretty much washed out by a focus on the materialism and petty political issues of the small community. The story tries to cover everything from how Minister Parris and Abigail came to Salem Town to the executions to Abigail’s death 40 years later. A much tighter focus might have helped.
The music, on the other hand, is good. You can stream the entire opera here, and the audio quality is infinitely better than is available at the live show. The best way to enjoy this material is probably to buy the CD (which at this point, only seems to be available at the show: the merchandise page at the site is blank). There’s nothing wrong with that fact; after all, that is how Jesus Christ Superstar got its start.