If you believed Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to be the definitive theatrical treatment of the history and milieu of the Salem witch trials, you weren’t reckoning with Obie winner Adriano Shaplin, whose remarkable new play Sarah Flood in Salem Mass is now at The Flea Theater through Oct. 26. A large cast featuring members of that theater’s resident troupe The Bats slowly coalesces to tell an imaginative and increasingly gripping 90-minute tale of a colonial village defined by hardship and hard work and struggling to establish its own church.
Sarah Flood, a girl from a future world of food pills and time machines, pays a visit intending to try to change history, but instead gets sucked into the local girls’ cultish worship circle. If that sounds like an outlandish premise, it is, but it works, and far better than one might imagine. That’s because the vivid assortment of villagers portrayed by this talented cast – some familiar to us from The Crucible – draw us implacably into their world.
Shaplin’s imaginative rendering of late-17th-century Massachusetts verges on the Shakespearean. At times so does her language (“Here’s poison”), an amalgam of 20th and 21st century vernacular (“loog,” “too long; didn’t read”) and old-style elevated language: When loose-lipped tavernkeeper Goody Good is placed in the stocks, local girl Laura Indian happens by and asks “Why not live up to the good part in thy name and not the wench part in thy name, then by and by design to fix the crazy part in thy name…” Goody Good calls Laura “Little black girl,” and though Laura is a local Native American she does serve the function the character of Tituba the slave does in The Crucible, the “foreigner” who initiates the worship circle eventually deemed satanic by the adult powers-that-be.
The political and romantic scheming involves a pharaonic wealthy landowner called Israel Pharaoh; his greedy daughter and a neighboring landowner plotting to woo each other, one for love, the other for riches; a rigid Captain and a hesitant Sheriff; and a number of girls who join Laura in the woods for ritual prayers and songs beside a big tree that’s precious to Laura. It’s a rollicking good story.
Much of the magic of the production, though, grows out of its style, physicality, and design. The characters almost never face each other, instead conversing while facing the audience, like the boys in South Park. Even when they’re talking to each other, but especially when they’re moving about the stage, they adopt stylized dance-like movements, sometimes suggesting or representing worship or farming or other real activities, other times seemingly abstract. Even characters not involved in the present scene go on with these motions. The effect is of a ritual or spell, and it takes a macabre though natural twist when the girls’ “poisoning” reduces them to frozen or possessed forms as the action scrambles towards its close.
Sometimes the whole cast scurries about as beavers, the engines of the local economy, “chopping down trees, building dams,” only to be killed and skinned. It’s funny, but also – like the whole production, in spite of the unlikely scenario – convincing. The staging itself is similarly potent. With few props, the cast makes much of a hanging backdrop sliced into thin ribbons that become various settings and objects – the stocks, the forest, and, in the climactic scene, the big tree coming down, a marvelous effect. (Caitlin Lainoff designed the set.)
Rebecca Wright directs all this action with many a flourish, yet with economy. Equally evocative is the music and sound design, created by the playwright himself to limn and heighten the action. Indeed all the technical elements work seamlessly together to build Adriano’s busy, almost hyper-creative material into an imposing whole. There’s a lot to enjoy and a lot to chew on here. It’s a big work, worthy of a bigger production in a bigger theater. Catch it close up at The Flea while you can, through Oct. 26.