SALEM. THIS LAND IS.
Disillusion Theater Project
at the Chicago Actors Ensemble
The Disillusion Theater Project is a very young ensemble, and not without talent. A dab of self-righteousness and a touch of naivete do not destroy their work, luckily, but they do color it from time to time, a reminder of the company's youth.
Their first show, Salem. This Land Is., now playing at the Chicago Actors Ensemble, is a rich performance piece, combining transcripts from the Salem witch trials with dance generated by the ensemble and choreographer Peter Carpenter and original material by director Lee Anne Schmitt. The idea is to explore the modern equivalent of the hysteria in Salem in 1692, which led to the hanging of between 19 and 23 people (the counts vary) as witches and the jailing of over 100 others. Not content to simply present the trials as uninterpreted parable (needless to say, it's been done), the Disillusion Theater Project treats them as a legacy that we're destined to come to terms with at the turn of each century.
The ensemble (Josie Dickson, Susanna Einstein, Varris Holmes, Sara Kraft, Jill Miller, David O'Donnell, Alexandra Price, Anthony Prud'homme, and Kathy Randels) do a smashing job of presenting the Salem hysteria through recitation, monologue, and dance, offering glimpses of a Puritan community seething with insecurities and family conflicts. As Schmitt points out with succinct poetry, the community looked to its God and its land and found both of them hard, they looked to themselves and found nothing but emptiness, "they looked around and found an enemy." Three women engage in a harmless game of fortune-telling, an itchy adolescent ritual that leads to an interrogation by the head of the household, Samuel Parrish, who also happens to be Salem's minister. In a game of words and movement, the questioning "Who? What? Which?" evolves into "Who? What? Witch." It's a lovely moment and a strong image, with the three girls wringing their hands in unison, hollow-eyed and exhausted from trying to explain themselves, finally pointing fingers at neighbors and enemies.
The facts of the Salem witch hunt are fascinating, and Schmitt works them in at every opportunity, often coupling them with stark images that bring her Puritans into our century; one of them stares raptly at a TV screen while his desolate wife goes quietly mad. It's brought to our attention that Samuel Parrish, responsible at least in part for many of the hangings, was a family-values man who believed in an objective standard of morality for all. He probably would've voted for Bush/Quayle.
But whenever this troupe begins making connections between Salem and the paranoia that pervades present-day life in America, it has a harder time of it. Where Arthur Miller had McCarthyism to rage against in The Crucible, these people have nothing as specific and so take on too much. There are brief nods throughout the production to racism, American foreign policy, materialism, class wars, and religious intolerance. With youthful enthusiasm, the production seems hell-bent on addressing all of society's ills, and relating all of them to the Salem trials of 1692. This is possible, of course, only if it's done in the most general terms. A monologue about hippies being run out of a suburban vacant lot one summer is awkward and preachy--we never get to know the inhabitants of the suburb the way we do the people of Salem, and the hippies' woes seem trivial next to the sublime suffering of Elizabeth Proctor, jailed for witchcraft and facing death pending the birth of her child.
Schmitt and the ensemble are less successful at pinning down the present-day emptiness that drives society toward mistrust and destruction; they use no specific recent examples of intolerance and have less empathy (ironically) for their contemporaries than they do for the Puritans of Salem. In fact whenever they concentrated on the present, I felt uncomfortably as though I were being lectured to by a group of folks perched safely atop the high pedestal of Art. Moreover, looking around on opening night, I didn't see many people in the audience I thought might be displaying a "Quayle for '96" bumper sticker on their cars. While I don't think artists should abandon their messages just because they might be preaching to the converted, none of the people in this audience needed to be told (nearly point-blank) that Intolerance Is Bad.
That message is a fine one, and most of the images in this piece are striking; but the preaching we can do without.