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Stage Left: Disturbing Crucible still packs a punch in modern era

Imagine a time when facts didn’t matter. When misguided ideology took precedence over the truth. When mass hysteria could sway the weak-minded and the world seemed to have gone mad.
Niah Davis, left, Nathaniel Exley and Emily Ann Pugsley star in the Canadian College of Performing Arts' production of The Crucible.

Imagine a time when facts didn’t matter. When misguided ideology took precedence over the truth. When mass hysteria could sway the weak-minded and the world seemed to have gone mad.

It may sound distressingly familiar to those who follow the political shenanigans south of the border. Yet, of course, The Crucible (1953) was intended by playwright Arthur Miller not as a prescient glimpse of Trump politics, but an allegory of the insidious McCarthyism then gripping America.

Tonight, the Canadian College of Performing Arts wraps up a short run of The Crucible, presented in repertory with Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet).

Directed with imagination and verve by Caleb Marshall, the college’s artistic director, The Crucible proves Miller’s dystopian vision has lost none of its punch and ability to disturb.

The play is a dramatization of the 17th century Salem witch trials. Girls are discovered in a forest dancing naked in a pagan frenzy. The discovery sends the Puritan town of Salem into a tizzy. An ensuing witch-hunt — a cavalcade of paranoid finger-pointing — culminates in a trial in which people are falsely accused of being in league with the devil and sentenced to death.

The Crucible is a behemoth of a play — some productions run as long as 3 1/2 hours. Marshall has trimmed it to less than 2 1/2 hours (including intermission) and reset the play in some undefined contemporary time. In this version, townsfolk wear simple clothes suggestive of the early 19th century; others sport leather trench coats, uniforms and even a gas mask.

One of Marshall’s boldest twists is the introduction of an emblem, worn by some as an arm-patch, that seems a hybrid of the swastika and the cross. The symbolism is a touch lugubrious and heavy-handed. Yet if it is a misstep, it’s one of few.

The show commences with a powerful and potent scene. Young women dance and chant frenziedly around a cauldron in a forest while techno-rock music rages. On opening night, this paganistic hysteria seemed potent and authentic. Even better is the handling of a courtroom scene.

A gaggle of girls appears to be manipulated puppet-style by dark forces, yelling and moving as one in a deftly choreographed sequence.

The primal scream let loose by nasty ringleader Abigail (well played by Niah Davis) was worth the price of admission in itself.

The set, dominated by a tiered platform, is simple enough. Yet the show is anything but dull — the director and his team make clever use of projections, slides and atmospheric music.

Especially notable was a boldly lit black-and-white scrim showing daylight beaming into a prison cell. This Crucible has a subdued colour palette, with characters clad in shades of black, grey and brown, suggesting a time sapped of joie de vivre.

The cast is composed of young students. Some are still grappling with the basics: projection, clear enunciation and so forth.

Aside from Davis, notable performers included Emily Anne Pugsley as Elizabeth Proctor, who was convincing as a good woman struggling to do the right thing (Pugsley also served as choreographer). Nathaniel Exley, playing her flawed but essentially decent husband, John Proctor, found his footing in the dramatic second act.

Guest performer Douglas Peerless (who impressed in the University of Victoria’s 2018 production of The Drowsy Chaperone) was another bright spot as Reverend Parris.

Suddenly Christmas is just around the corner. Here’s a smattering of December productions to add spice to your Yuletide celebrations.

Ballet Victoria reprises its production of The Gift Dec. 27 to 29 at the Royal Theatre. Featuring the Victoria Symphony, the company provides a modern take on The Nutcracker while retaining Tchaikovsky’s beloved score.

The Yellowpoint Christmas Spectacular, at the Royal today and Sunday, has become a Victoria tradition over the past 13 years. The song and dance extravaganza features music made famous by Billy Joel, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Bing Crosby.

Victoria’s Wonderheads Theatre is renowned for its acclaimed mask work. Fans of clowning and mime will love their version of A Christmas Carol, poised to play McPherson Playhouse Dec. 17 and 18.

For those who want to rock and roll, Elements Casino hosts Buddy’s Holly Jolly Christmas on Dec. 22. The show features veteran Buddy Holly impersonator Zachary Stevenson from The Buddy Holly Story. Added bonus: Ben Klein appears as Elvis.

The days following Christmas can be anti-climactic, especially for youngsters. Their spirits may perk up with Kaleidoscope Theatre’s production of Charlotte’s Web. The classic E.B. White tale about a young pig destined for the butcher’s block plays McPherson Playhouse Dec. 28 and 29.