A small, unassuming insert is tucked into the program for the University of Texas Department of Theatre & Dance's production of The Crucible. It gratefully acknowledges the solution to an undisclosed problem. Only weeks before the show's opening, it seems, guest director Michael Fry was replaced by Robert Ramirez (head of the acting program) and MFA director Jess Shoemaker, who stepped in to co-direct the show to its first curtain.
As if there weren't already enough drama in Arthur Miller's classic.
To linger on this point or speculate as to the reason for the change is to devalue the hard work put into the production, so I won't. I only mention it as a means of questioning where to place the bar, critically speaking. The show is very good yet flawed, and I naturally wonder to whom the blame and/or praise should go. Did Ramirez and Shoemaker save the ship from sinking or merely steer it into port? Either way, as a relatively recent graduate of the department, I know these students are taught that a show must stand on its own. And for the most part, this one does.
It's easy to relate the story of the Salem witch trials to our current times; a world where absolute lunacy reigns should be familiar to us all by now. The cast is pleasingly diverse, with several actors of color in prominent roles, including John and Elizabeth Proctor. Interestingly, this diversity says quite a bit by saying nothing at all – actors of color are interwoven dynamically into areas of different power structures, which has a normalizing effect, as well it should. Additionally, a couple of traditionally male roles are played (incredibly well) by females.
Perhaps obviously, the students further along in their studies exhibit superior craftsmanship and character development. They are fully invested and completely in control of their bodies and voices, which is an important factor in a show that can easily devolve – and occasionally does – into a scream-fest. Standouts include Kat Lozano as Reverend Hale, Miles Agee as Giles Corey, Ellie Dubin as Rebecca Nurse, Nyles Washington as John Proctor, and Rama Tchuente as Elizabeth Proctor. Others haven't quite found themselves yet. There's a lot of indicating, and an abundance of that strange, quivering vibrato that young actors tend to use to convey tension, emotion, and "drama" rather than trusting their words and actions to do so. But to be fair, that's why they're in school.
As is common, the cast features an older, more experienced actor from off-campus for the benefit and learning experience of the students. Luke Daniels is superb in tone and motion as Deputy Governor Danforth. Upon taking the stage in Act II, he elevates the other performers, as though a gauntlet has been thrown down and the challenge bravely accepted.
The set is well-crafted and simple. Zoe Andersen gives us a uniform lattice of wooden beams, both directly behind the playing space and suspended above it. It's stylized and rustic, with a backdrop of a shadowy, dense forest. Ben Campbell's sound design is used sparingly, to proper effect when noticeable. Mercedes McCleary's lighting design is more function than form, but I don't mean that disparagingly; the lights do their job. Combined, though, there's a strange sense of withholding from these elements, almost as though early directorial choices pigeonholed these designers rather than let their creativity and skill run free, as UT is known to do. Aaron Kubacak's costume design, however, is picture-perfect.
This production, at its best, is a well-acted drama that still manages to elicit suspense and tension even though just about everyone who's been through 10th grade English knows what's going to happen. At its worst, it lacks a certain cohesion; not everything quite "clicks," and it's hard to know who to fault for that.
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