Unfortunately, this cannot be said of Eagle’s Nest Theatre’s production, or at least certainly not as much as one would hope for in a staging of this masterwork. Being unfamiliar with this company, it is a little difficult to know at what level to set the bar, but for a group describing itself as “becoming one of Melbourne’s best known theatre companies”, this example shows some promise but ultimately fails to clear the bar it has set for itself (if you’ll pardon the extended metaphor).
One’s first impression is that of a highly competent university production, with the very young cast (no one looked much over 35 and most far younger than that, leading to the youngest renditions of Giles Corey and Deputy Governor Danforth I’ve seen since NSW’s Junior Drama Company). Overall we are presented with a relatively mixed bag of talent. No one was terrible, most were middling, and only a few were particularly compelling. Indeed, whether it be Matt Scholten’s direction or the actors’ own misinterpretations at work, much of the tone seemed oddly misguided, with Abigail (Pip Edwards) and her cohorts in the opening act giggling and larking as though unaware of the gravity of the situation, Reverend Parris (Russ Pirie) frequently playing for laughs even into Act IV, and Giles Corey (Anthony Winnick) milking almost every moment for overt comedic effect.
This kind of misaimed amateurishness was somewhat rescued by the better (or at least more appropriately pitched) performances of Adrian Snodgrass as the venomous Thomas Putnam, or the earnest Mark Crees as Reverend Hale.
And while there were, frankly, no especially great actors in the play, a few delivered some fairly strong performances. Austin Castiglione as Danforth brought gravitas to his character, imparting a steely-eyed conviction that was a nice alternative to the edge of pomposity or generic stentorian deliveries that more conventionally-cast older actors sometimes bring to the role. Lou Endicott is also compelling as Elizabeth Proctor, managing to convey a stern yet fragile weariness that belied her years, doing a good job of balancing the “funeral that marches around [her] heart” with a more tender humanity.
The best performers in the play have both obvious and unexpected roles. The pint-sized Genevieve Giuffre does a great job with Mary Warren, delivering quite a range - from self-importance, contrition, and obstinance to outright desperation. Over it all is a smothering shroud of fear, which she conveys very effectively indeed.
It is unsurprising, however, that to their best actor goes the coveted role of John Proctor. Matthew Molony brings a degree of understated yet palpable conviction to his role that is a contrast to some of the more brooding or manic Proctors of more professional productions. Although having his scripted flashes of rage and angst, Molony plays Proctor with a more everyman touch than that of a “grand character” raging against his dire circumstances. In fact, there was something disarmingly Australian about his performance, not referring to his accent but rather his accessible manner. Never over the top but unafraid to show emotion when called for, Molony is certainly the best thing in this production.
Like the actors, the staging was uneven. The simple production values worked on the whole, with good blocking and a pleasingly simple set by Magdalena Romaniuk that required minimal yet effective reconfiguration for each of the four acts. The non-specifically modern (and largely barefoot) costume design by Philippa Barr may be an unnecessary conceit, but worked fine and was less obtrusive than one might expect. The same cannot be said for the gratuitous live music being played frequently to “enhance” the drama, but which instead detracted from it in an inept and thoroughly annoying fashion, as did the rather hackneyed technique of having the whole cast visible at all times, those not currently performing just offstage in a trance-like state. It all bespeaks a lack of faith in the material, something corroborated by Scholten’s boldly ambivalent description of it in the programme as a “flawed yet brilliant” text. Some elaboration on his perception of “flawed” might have been apropos…
Can the quality of the material rise above the calibre of a particular rendition? Yes. But you’d rather it not be such a struggle. This production’s shortcomings are not irretrievable, but it is difficult to know to whom to recommend it. If you have never seen The Crucible before, then this would be an unsatisfactory introduction, while if you have seen it previously then there’s a good chance this will disappoint.
Although not without some good points, this production as a whole is no great shakes.
EAGLE'S NEST THEATRE - SEASON ONE
Arthur Miller's The Crucible
Venue: Auspicious Arts Incubator | 166 Sturt Street, Southbank; opposite VCA and Malthouse Theatre
Dates: May 1st - 11th | For specific times www.eaglesnesttheatre.com
Tickets: $26 / $16; groups 10 + and early-bird (pre 14 April): $24 / $14; preview & tight-arse tues & wed: $20 / $10