BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Just as the makers of "Law & Order" sometimes fictionalized true crime stories for their series, so did the writers for "The Witch of Edmonton" all the way back in 1621.
Collaborators Thomas Dekker, John Ford and William Rowley heard news about a woman executed for sorcery in the London suburb of Edmonton and derived from it quite an interesting drama, which now blazes to life in a highly effective production that opened Thursday at the Theater at St. Clement's.
With its rough brick walls and modest cathedral ceiling, St. Clement's is an appropriate place for director Jesse Berger's vigorous staging of "The Witch of Edmonton" for Red Bull Theater, a young company with a special focus on Jacobean drama.Designer Anka Lupes' setting of skeletal timber and planks surrounds a central area of cinders and dirt where the so-called witch, Mother Sawyer, dwells in poverty. Abused and slandered by her neighbors, Mother Sawyer at last calls up a devil in the guise of a black dog, which she sends out to plague them.
Too bad the devil dog bumps up against Frank, a young man forced by his father to marry nice, wealthy Susan when already he is wed secretly to nice, poor Winifred. Evilly influenced by the creature, Frank's plan to run off with Winifred twists into killing Susan and pretending they were waylaid by robbers.
Susan's ghost leads to the discovery of the murder weapon in Frank's possession and he soon confesses. Brought to trial, Mother Sawyer defends herself as a "poor, deformed and ignorant" soul victimized by her community. The conclusion sees both Frank and Mother Sawyer paying a fatal price for their crimes.
Led by a fiery Charlayne Woodard as the unrepentant Mother Sawyer and a sinister Derek Smith as that hellish hound — whose creepy alliance goes beyond the merely unholy — the Red Bull ensemble provides a crisply-spoken and increasingly urgent rendition of the drama.
Justin Blanchard's initially mild-mannered Frank, Christina Pumariega's high-spirited Susan and Adam Green's comical farmhand are portrayed naturally and youthfully. Expert turns by Sam Tsoutsouvas as a hearty landowner and Christopher Innvar as a hypocritical knight offer solid support while no less than Andre De Shields and Everett Quinton pop out among the villagers.
Cait O'Connor's layered, earth-hued 1600s clothes move very gracefully, while her design for the dog is worthy of "The Lion King" in its inventiveness. Composer Daniel Levy's skittering violins and Peter West's lighting design lend considerable spookiness to the show, which is paced with smarts and assurance by Berger.
"The Witch of Edmonton" continues through Feb 13 at the Theater at St. Clement's, 423 W. 46th St., New York. Call (212) 352-3101 or visit www.redbulltheater.com.