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U.Va. drama department presents 'Vinegar Tom'

Satirical play tackles gender roles through 17th-century witch-hunt

Feminism has been a point of societal contention since the term itself was coined. An emerging political movement at the turn of the century, a flourishing cultural campaign in the 1960s and '70s, and now a controversial mindset viewed by some as unnecessary and outdated, feminism has traditionally been neglected by the male-dominated entertainment world. This history of marginalization makes the few feminist theatrical works all the more significant today.

Vinegar Tom, the University drama department's latest production, is a 1976 play written by feminist playwright Caryl Churchill. While you might worry this would make it outdated, the 36-year-old play is still "relevant and challenging," director John Vreeke said in an email. The production, which features both undergraduate and graduate students, considers the role women play in patriarchal societies, Vreeke said.

"Sadly, many of the themes around women's powers and rights [are still relevant today]," Vreeke said. "Often, a biblical Christian belief is that women are subservient to men, that they are somehow less than men and that ultimately, the male needs to make the final decisions in the marriage."

Churchill's play revolves around a mother and daughter accused of witchcraft in 17th-century England. The play uses the resulting trials - and contemporary musical interludes - as a venue for commenting on the role of gender in society. Despite Vinegar Tom's political leanings, Vreeke said the production is not overly dramatized or heavy-handed.

"This is basically a very dark comedy," he said. "Hanging women, because they are accused of being witches? That's a laugh a minute ... it's biting and often funny satire."

Graduate student Amy Barrick, who plays Margery, agreed with Vreeke.

"It's funnier than we all thought it would be," she said. "You wouldn't think a play about a 17th-century witch hunt with parallels to the women's rights movement could be funny, but we've been cracking up in rehearsal at the ridiculousness of these characters."

Barrick said the play's innate humor has permeated the show's near-daily rehearsals, which Barrick described as "a balance between focus and fun."

Assistant stage manager Jessie Wright, a fourth-year College student, said the crew also operates by a "work-hard, play-hard" ethic.

"The stage management team makes sure that the rehearsal is running on schedule, and the actors are very focused on working on their performances," Wright said. "During breaks, though, it has been really fun to joke around together, especially as it is a mix of both undergrads and grad students."

During performances, the cast and crew are joined by a live band made up of local musicians, a touch which Wright said sets the show apart from the average production.

"This show is particularly unique in that it has a live band that performs in between certain scenes of the play," Wright said. "I can't wait to see the audience's reaction to that combination. The band sounds fabulous, and the energy of an audience ... is going to be a great addition to the production."

While the audience can look forward to rock music, dedicated actors and witty satire, Vreeke said exploring "the poetry and beauty in Churchill's writing" has been one of the most rewarding aspects of his directorial experience.

"She may be political and has a very strong, obvious agenda, but her writing is poetic and beautiful and ultimately very playable," Vreeke said. "As we have worked on her play, this became more and more apparent."

Vinegar Tom runs at the Helms Theatre Feb. 16-18 and Feb. 21-25 at 8 p.m. Tickets are free for University students from the U.Va. Arts Box Office.

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