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Review: Abigail/1702, Boutique Theatre

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To anyone who’s been holding out for a good theatrical sequel, Roberto Aguire Sacasa’s Abigail/1702 is the latest member of that rare species. Picking up 10 years from the ending of its predecessor, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Sacasa plucks out Miller’s two-faced antagonist, Abigail Williams, and turns her into a very successful protagonist. The past decade has transformed the jealous young girl into a desperately puritanical young woman. Once a fierce denouncer in the Salem witch trials who sent 20 people to their deaths over a tumultuous affair with John Proctor, the married man she once worked for, she now lives on a farm in Boston. She has abandoned her now infamous name and adopted the new identity of a god-fearing farmer and nurse, which she hopes will drive away Satan’s hold on her.

So far she has been successful. After all these years of living in a modest little hut, surrounded by dense forest and countless iron crosses, the Devil has not come to reclaim her. However, the arrival of a handsome wounded sailor, who is ironically named John Brown, is enough to stir up feelings that she has thus far been able to suppress. Their attraction to each other is palpable, as much as Abigail might deny it, but she certainly hasn’t forgotten the last time she gave in to a man’s insistence on bedding her, and not least because both men share the same first name.

Abigail/1702 reveals that John Proctor, the protagonist of The Crucible, forced himself upon Abigal the first time that they slept together, even though their later encounters were apparently consensual. While John Brown never physically violates her, he is not about to take no for answer. He scoffs at her choice of chastity, and declares, to the shock of the audience, that “a woman who is not a wife or a mother is only half a woman.” Although, thanks to Abigail, John’s wife, Elizabeth Proctor, is now a widow with no surviving children, and looks at most like half a woman when Abigail comes to see her in a desperate attempt to set things right.

The Crucible‘s account of the absurd Salem witch-hunt was famously allegorical, with its real target being the anti-communist paranoia that Senator McCarthy was still stirring up when it was first performed. However, Sacasa’s sequel does not continue this focus. Its social commentary is much more visible at the surface, but arguably just as contemporary. While it is remarkable how seamlessly our old spiteful villain has transitioned into a sympathetic tragic heroine, there is no denying that she is still up to her old tricks. She is still doing selfish things for purportedly selfless and pious reasons. Her intentions are good, but they are nowhere near as pure as she tells herself. Her interest in redeeming herself, in healing the sick and in caring for orphans only started when she found out that the Devil was in hot pursuit of her.

Swinging between extremes is the only way she knows how to survive. When she is not destroying every life in sight, she is trying to save them all. When she is not entering into abusive love affairs, she is abstaining from all sexual acts. Whatever she tries, it never works for long.

Boutique Theatre has added their own special touch to the play’s premier Australian production. At the bottom of the staircase leading up to the theatre, each guest is offered a small wheat biscuit. At the top of the stairs, they are offered a thimble cup full of either wine or blackcurrant juice. As they go through the big double doors to take their seats, the usher collects their empty cup and warns them that this ‘communion’ “may not save your soul.” Just like this play’s depiction of the Devil, who surprisingly is present as a character here, this elaborate welcome strikes the right balance between campy and caustic. Abigail/1702 feels just as cruel as its predecessor, but it is also much more playful. Abigail’s sins might have been forgiven, but they certainly have not been forgotten. There is a sadistic sense of inevitability to Abigail’s great punishment, as it would seem that not only circumstance but also her nature have always been against her.

Under Elizabeth’s excellent direction, the cast of this production do a fine job of creating either complex or more cartoonish characters well called upon, just as the special effects team have a good sense of when to make things stylised and certainly know when and how to make things look realistic. Emma Caldwell is particularly impressive as Abigail and Jessica Tanner leaves an especially strong impression as the wounded Elizabeth. Nick Casey’s forest-inspired set design is the perfect landscape for these haunting figures to prowl about in and the thrust theatre staging literally gives every audience member a different perspective on the action. Depending on where they are seated, some character reactions may be obscured while others happen in plain view. There is no level playing field for these characters as they each receive their judgement.

Sacasa has also written a fair bit for the screen, which shows here in the way he takes his cues from some of the best cinematic sequels as he crafts this follow-up to Arthur Miller’s classic play. He draws on the most interesting story points of The Crucible while still having his own story to tell and his own messages to send. As such, Abigail/1702 is not only a fitting continuation of the original story, but it also works solidly as a standalone piece.

Written by Christian Tsoutsouvas

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July 27th 2016
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