Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
This weekend, Senior Company is presenting Caryl Churchill’s “Vinegar Tom,” which combines a historical drama of a 17th century witch-hunt with modern issues and energizing modern musical vignettes. The Senior Company is an entirely student run theater group consisting of upperclassmen theater majors, who run the production to complete their major requirements. “Vinegar Tom” struck the group as an outstanding pick since it was written in the middle of the 70’s, a battleground for major social issues.
“We’re all excited about the questions the play presents…gender issues, sexism, class conflict, ageism,” explained director Jackie Vitale ’09. “Imagine what we can gain by discussing about feminism, instead of brushing it under the table.”
Arthur Miller can eat his heart out; “Vinegar Tom” is the feminist response to “The Crucible.” Set in 17th Century England, the community ties between a small agrarian society begin to crumble when the villagers take out the frustration of their own problems on other people. Looking for a scapegoat to blame their ill conditions, the villagers begin to label women seen as headstrong outcasts and those who are sexually liberated as witches. In a predominately female cast, every character is portrayed with a wide range of emotions, from powerful to vulnerable, passive to forceful.
“What makes it so powerful is the fact that it was written from a woman’s perspective,” explains Jessie Bear ’09, who plays Joan “Mother” Nokes, a social pariah with a forward personality. “You get excited about the characters, the music and engaging the audience. Even though the music and setting of the play brings together conflicting time periods, there’s continuity in the issues that are addressed.”
“Vinegar Tom” was chosen by the Company back in May, allowing time for casting in the first week of the fall semester and rehearsals to begin by the second week. Students often prepared for dramaturgy by researching living conditions of the historical time period, studying the physical movements and emotions of the character and incorporating their own ideas.
“It was a very collaborative process, bringing in our own ideas and being aware of our own body and the physicality of our characters,” comments Sasha Shahidi ’09, who performs as Ellen, the local witch-doctor. “I’m continually amazed by the sheer genius of my peers.”
A unique element to “Vinegar Tom” is its incorporation of musical inserts in between dramatic scenes. A live band consisting of students accompanies the actors and actresses. “We were really looking forward to the musical component and for some of us, we’re trying out a new side,” mentions Vitale. The cast even changed out of their costumes to make a clear distinction between settings.
As for the musical style, guitarist Alex Lerner ’09 describes it as ranging from “pirate to 90’s rock grunge, but [even so] the music and action flows together…we’re just here to have a good time.” The modern music is composed by Daniel Perelstein ’09, a close friend who encouraged Lerner to get involved with “Vinegar Tom.”
So what do they want the audience to get out of this production? “It’s set in the 17th Century, but I want the audience to draw connections from the story to their own lives,” comments Vitale. “I want them to hear a good story, but I want them to remember the issues addressed when they leave the theater.”
The cast includes Colin Aarons ’09, Cara Arcuni ’09, Jackie Avitabile ’09, Jessie Bear ’09, Jesse Paulsen, Haverford, ’09, Miriam Rich ’11, Sasha Shahidi ’09, Isa St. Clair ’11, and Elena Viboch ’09. It is directed by Jackie Vitale ’09, dramaturged by Stephen Graf ’09 and scored by Daniel Perelstein ’09 with lighting and set design by Kim Comer ’09 and costumes by Allison McCarthy ’09. You can catch performances at the Frear Ensemble Theater in LPAC December 5th and 6th, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and December 7th, Sunday at 2 p.m.