Sep 172010
 

Original Painting By Nara Denning

A new original rock opera about the Salem Witch Trials is concluding its run in San Francisco. Its thirteenth and last performance will be this coming Thursday, September 23 in the Shrine Room of the TempleSF at 540 Howard St. The following review is going to be somewhat negative, and so let me start by saying that the cast and the music is quite good, and that the material has some potential.
 

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.

 Posted by at 8:38 pm

  10 Responses to “Theater Review: Abigail The Salem Witch Trials The Rock Opera”

  1. Hello Scott

    Thanks for the review and comments on our show. The link connection to our website and greenmills video is cool. you should come out thursday for our last show at temple!
    cheers

  2. Thanks for the link.

    The cast and the music is quite good, and that the material has some potential.
    You can read the narrative of Abigail The Salem Witch Trials The Rock Opera at their website. The sepia-toned movie (featuring the same cast) generally does the best job of putting the audience in the setting and telling the story 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. There are intriguing glimpses or conflicts between the polytheistic world-view of Tituba and the Puritan community. The music is good, and you can stream the entire opera here, and the audio quality is better than is available at the live show. The best way to enjoy this material is probably to buy the CD, after all, that is how Jesus Christ Superstar got its start.

  3. I attended the 10 June show and knowing what the work that has gone into bringing this rock opera to the public, I was not a critical of an opening year’s performance as is the reviewer. Generally, I am finding that multimedia performances are not well received by reviewers, despite the multimedia performance being the cutting edge of today’s art field. What impressed me most was the music, and yes, I finally bought the CD. Now, I am looking forward to the DVD, coming soon. I see this for what it is: A cult movement that is now supplied with visuals and music and some truths of the matter, thanks to the research done in Salem by Michael Xavier. I find the objection to adults performing for children absurd, particularly given the lack of sophistication of chldren’s voices and the child work laws, so I dismiss this objection outright, yet it set the frame for my criticism of most of the following comments. True, the work needs a larger stage and better seating, but I got there early and sat in the front row, so I have no complaints there. The earplugs supplied allowed me to hear the music while also leaving without a single ringing in my ears. As to the objection of pillows for boulders, come on, man, are you for real? As such, I am glad the reviewer enjoyed the music, we agree there, but I find offensive his take on the performance and wonder greatly whether he has vision. Sincerely, Elizabeth Selandia, OMD, CA

  4. Michael Xavier the idea man behind ABIGAIL, as well as Danny knop and many of the cast are all old friends of mine. I have to say that there is nothing more fulfilling than seeing an idea that started out years and years ago come to such beautiful fruition. I am proud to have witnessed and been support to this endeavor which is in my opinion an amazing production! ( FYI- most all of ABIGAIL cast, performers, and support are all volunteers,,,with most performances done purely for the joy of the experience!) THAT to me is amazing! I feel lucky to have been around this production as well as been witness to one of my very best friends animated dream come to life on the stage. The songs touched my heart and my mind, the production has inspired me and stimulated my creativity….Thank you All involved in this production! For those of you who haven’t seen it, I encourage you to come, see and feel for yourself…..!!!

  5. It was certainly very gracious of both Michael (the producer) and Rande (Thomas Putnam in the production) to respond to this review.

    Welcome Elizabeth as well! Thanks for the feed-back. And I’m sorry that my opinions offended you.

    I did not really object to the adults playing children. My impression was that the book places the ages of the girls a bit older than reality, which is fine, but then the motivation of the girls should be be more adult as well. For instance, Miller has Abigail rejected by John Proctor. Other motivations would work as well, and there genuinely is an attempt to provide a motivation or two for Abigail, but it was not very clear to me.

    I wish I had seen the earplugs you were offered, but, again, while virtually all the singing was unintelligible without them, I did NOT experience any ringing in my ears afterward. The only reason I would not recommend this show to others is the sound system. Everything else spanned from tolerable (the staging) to outright fun (the music).

  6. Hello Scott, thanks for reviewing our show.
    I see in this last comment that you mentioned “the book” and I am assuming you meant “The Crucible”
    Just want to make clear that our story had nothing to do with that book, and more to do with the real story. This was an original but historical based piece, though some of the material about Indians was to add a more spiritual slant. And there was more than one tribe, by the way, so though Abigails parents were murdered by one tribe, Abigail never forgot the kindness and spiritual lessons from another tribe. (she wasn’t racist:-) Surprised Michael didn’t pipe in, after all, he wrote the treatment. But anyways, thanks again for coming and reviewing us!
    I wonder how many other people came, expecting the Crucible, and being confused by all original material.
    As far as the sound system, it was really hard for us to find a space that had such great projection capabilities, and Temple was not only extremely loving and supportive of the arts, but available. I agree, the sound was a major issue, but more for us on stage:-)
    Anyways, it was truly a labor of love…so I’m sure I speak for the whole cast by saying we are glad it entertained you, as thats what it was meant to do!
    Blessings,
    Cynthia aka Abigail

  7. Hi, Cynthia! I really did enjoy your performance in particular. The entire cast had great voices, and yours certainly held up against the score which can be hard in a rock opera.

    In this case, I meant the usual theater-geek “the book” as opposed to the “the music” i.e. the story on which the musical is based, and, yes, in this case that is clearly not “The Crucible”. I must confess that I did not get that there were two tribes involved with Abigail’s back-story.

    I do hope that you all continue to work on the piece. The book could use an overhaul, but the score is genuinely excellent. It might even work better if simply presented as an oratorio with the performers at music stands with the film projected behind.

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