Must be the season of the witch: Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently premiering Sarah Ruhl’s new play, “Becky Nurse of Salem” and, across town, the smaller, intrepid theater company Shotgun Players just opened British playwright Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play “Vinegar Tom” — on Friday the 13th, no less.
In Churchill’s play with music, a couple in rural 17th-century England (played by Jennifer McGeorge and Dov Hassan, the only male in the 11-member cast), beset with misfortune, decide to throw the blame on their neighbor, Joan (Celia Maurice). She must be a witch who cast a spell on them, and her annoying cat, Vinegar Tom, is undoubtedly her familiar.
By extension, Joan’s independent-minded daughter, Alice (Megan Trout), the play’s central character, must be a witch, too. Soon enough, Alice’s friend Susan (Amanda Farbstein) is accused of witchcraft as well.
Churchill, and director Ariel Craft, know just how to keep an audience off balance, entertaining us and walloping us; the play, presented as a period piece, weaves its way through comedy and deeply horrifying drama, then back again to vaudeville-style comedy, interspersed all along with a sort of sly ragtag-sexy Greek chorus that sings and dances in a modern idiom (with an English music-hall vibe). A terrific live band accompanies them from its second-tier perch.
Everything coalesces in this wildly physicalized production: Nina Ball’s wooden framework of a set with ladders and staircases and platforms upon which the actors nimbly scramble and swing as though it’s a jungle gym; the entr’acte singing (Diana Lawrence, composer) and dancing (choreography by Natalie Greene); Brooke Jennings’ detailed costumes; and Craft’s brisk, unerringly direction.
Nor is there a weak link in this excellent cast, from Trout’s final, anguished cry to the heavens, to Sam Jackson’s wry, implacable herbal healer, to Hassan’s roles as a black-hatted, devilish seducer and as a rageful husband, to Sharon Shao’s free-spirited sprite, locked up by her parents for refusing to marry. (“Your best chance of being left alone is to marry a rich man,” the healer advises her.) Even the heavy accents are consistent.
The prolific Churchill is perhaps today’s foremost feminist playwright, and in this play, as she explores the ways in which women were, and too often still are, subjugated by society and the patriarchy, she casts an at times hypnotic spell. “Who are the witches now?” taunt the singers. “Where have the witches gone?” And, “Would they have hanged you?”
Presented by Shotgun Players
Where: Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
When: 7 p..m. some Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; extended through Jan. 26
Tickets: $7 to $44
Contact: (510) 841-6500, ext. 303, www.shotgunplayers.org