THE CAPPIES: Ridley presents Vinegar Tom
Ridley College students perform Caryl Churchill's Vinegar Tom. (Supplied photo)
Students peer review Ridley College's production of Caryl Churchill's Vinegar Tom.
Vinegar Tom an eye-opening production
Greater Fort Erie Secondary School
Through the backdrop of 18th-century witch hunting, Ridley College powerfully personified the feminine experience in their performance of Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom.
In a small 17th-century farm town, watch neighbour turn against neighbour, and friend against friend as a community tries to expose the witches hiding in plain sight. Showcasing the abuse, mistreatment and oppression faced by women, the themes of Vinegar Tom struck home, leaving the audience thinking critically about society’s treatment towards groups of people who are “different.”
Following five very contrasting women, the unfairness and misogyny found in society is highlighted as each one, no matter their actions, is deemed a witch. Especially relevant in today’s political climate, this play offers a poignant message about the scapegoats for which society is always looking.
Upon arrival, the audience was greeted with professional and realistic sets, and a live pianist to transport them into the scenery before the show even began. The dedicated cast skilfully used satire and humour to showcase the injustices that women all over the world continue to face on a daily basis. The ridiculousness of situations left the crowd laughing, while also evoking a deep questioning of how these themes are relevant today.
Standout performances were given by Mary Bajela as Margery, whose palpable energy and acting skill brought vibrancy to the show, and by Anastasia Guzenko as Joan, who skilfully brought comic relief through her exceptional physicality. Not to be forgotten, Idara Okon had a remarkable stage presence as the outspoken witch hunter Packer; it was certain that all eyes were on her when she took to the stage. In terms of vocals, Angela Daudu had the audience speechless with her impressive singing ability.
Ridley College’s production showcased a great deal of creativity and talent. Using Brechtian humour, a style of political theatre meant to have a distancing effect on the audience, the cast was able to effectively translate their meaning and inspire deep thought. By spontaneously breaking out in song, the play allowed viewers to self reflect and think analytically about what was happening. These songs were performed with grace by the cast, and while some members had trouble staying within their range, the effect was far from lost.
With topics ranging from menstruation to the mistreatment of women by doctors, these pieces added another layer of meaning to the performance, and brought important issues to light.
Incorporating Malleus Maleficarum: The Hammer of Witches, a real treatise written in this time period, an interesting and moving final scene was created. Presented humorously, the juxtaposition of the theatrical and upbeat delivery and the jarring, sexist information created a powerfully expressive piece that effectively drove home the important message of the play.
Despite a few mumbled and missed lines, the cast never lost their rhythm, keeping the crowd captivated. The performances steadily improved as the show went on, leading to the thought provoking and dynamic finale.
It can be said with certainty that no audience member left Ridley College’s production of Vinegar Tom unchanged, as the crowd was instilled with new perspective and critical questions about the oppression that is so deeply ingrained into history and society.
A crystal ball of the past and present
Eden High School
Take a leap back into the 17th century and experience the assault and prejudice which women had to face.
Now, draw yourself back into the present and let it dawn upon you that this is indeed still the case. Ridley College’s mind-blowing performance of Vinegar Tom rips the illusion we have been under to shreds and exposes the world to how it truly remains.
Originally written by playwright Caryl Churchill, Vinegar Tom is set in rural London, England, where women were wrongfully executed for the use of witchcraft. Intertwining historically accurate events and a Brechtian style of theatre, Churchill exposes society for eliminating socially marginalized people who act on their impulses.
The plot follows a young Alice who “bewitches” a man that self-proclaims himself as the devil for committing a sinful act. Yet another girl, Betty, must be wed to a man whom she does not know and is then considered ill for her defiance. Joan, the humorous old woman who spews out curses, is suddenly feared by her neighbours. What do these people have in common? They are all accused of witchcraft- — and they are all women.
In the same manner that Vinegar Tom broke through the established stance on misogyny, the play also breaks through the principles of theatre. Brechtian Theatre is infamous for its purpose of alienating the audience in order to make the message relevant to actual life.
Wise technical choices such as spontaneously bursting into song and unmasking scene changes added further to the epic style of performance. The incorporation of such elements broke the wall between actors and audience. One was never able to be immersed in the plot before the fantasy of it shattered again. In return, the audience was left on edge, hungry for more.
The cast truly brought the play together with their high-energy stage presence. Anastasia Guzenko was a ball of fire in the role of Joan/Man as she strutted around on stage with sass and charisma, all the while limping from old age. Other outstanding performances were given by Raylon Chan (Jack) and Mary Bajela (Margery) as a married couple who bickered their way through chores as the audience roared with laughter.
Although a few actors were not as absorbed in their character as others, the chemistry between the cast flowed effortlessly and the message was clear nonetheless.
To say that Vinegar Tom left one thinking is an understatement. The story of the women who were marked as social pariahs brought light upon major issues present in society. We are quick to blame others for passing judgment yet how much are we ourselves responsible for?
A mixture of comedy and tragedy, Ridley College’s production was truly a wicked concoction that cast a spell upon the entire audience.
Who are the witches now?
Governor Simcoe Secondary School
Scapegoats and persecutors, victims and oppressors. When the witch hunt is over and the mob is satisfied, have the underlying issues truly been resolved, or is it just a matter of time until the blame is passed onto somebody else?
In its performance of Vinegar Tom, Ridley College laid bare the darkest side of human nature, transforming passive audience members into active critics and demanding that we face our prejudice and consider our part in the cycle of human behaviour.
Vinegar Tom, written during the women’s rights movement of the 1970s, examines the power dynamic between men and women, using an old English witch hunt to show the universal relevance of the issue.
Mother and daughter Joan and Alice are tried as witches in an attempt to explain the mishappenings in their village, with the women around them unable to avoid being swept up in the ever-intensifying hunt. Neighbours turn on neighbours and friends turn on friends to point fingers and deflect blame, leaving no one unblemished by the time the witch hunter’s work is done.
Outbreaks of modern song and a live pianist in the centre of the stage periodically broke the fourth wall in the style of epic theatre, prompting viewers to take a step back and reflect on what was being shown. The songs, relevant as their lyrics about women may have been, actively contradicted the tone of the narrative at times, with hauntingly dark scenes followed by energetic vaudeville performances in top hats and tails.
The cast played up this contrast to great effect, embracing the highs and lows of emotion to leave the audience reeling and questioning the meaning of their choices and actions.
The relationships shown on stage were a highlight of the show, with the actors’ interactions driving the story and revealing the motivations of their characters.
Anastasia Guzenko brought a humorous twist with her portrayal of the elderly Joan, her exaggeratedly slow walk and sharp tongue drawing laughs, but also provoking her neighbour Margery, played by Mary Bajela, to the point of accusing Joan and her cat Vinegar Tom of witchcraft. This deteriorating relationship was brought to life and made believable by the strong dynamic between the actresses. Other character-revealing connections included that of the well-off Betty (Georgie Murphy) and the local herb-woman Ellen (Angela Daudu) she went to for advice, as well as Alice (Eve Bradley) and the unnamed father of her child who abandoned her in her time of need.
Instead of entertaining the audience and leaving them satisfied, Ridley’s performance asked more questions than it answered and insisted that its viewers consider their role in the human prejudice that is all too relevant even today. With skilful actors, jarring musical numbers and probing questions, Vinegar Tom made a point that is sure to resonate for years to come.
What are the Cappies?
Cappies Niagara is a critics and awards program for high school theatre and journalism that’s all about student reviews of student productions.
Cappies Niagara is a program where high school theatre and journalism students are trained as critics, attend shows at other schools and write reviews.
Their reviews are submitted, anonymously, for review by a Cappies teacher. The top three reviews are published (the best one in its entirety) after each of the plays is performed.
At the end of the season, the student critics and performers gather for a formal Cappies gala and awards ceremony.