Austin Shakespeare finds timely political message in classic play

  • Andrew J. Friedenthal
  • Special to the American-Statesman
8:00 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017 Austin360
Hannah Rutt, left, and Rachel Wolff in Austin Shakespeare’s “The Crucible.” Contributed by Bret Brookshire

In times of political and social upheaval, theater is one of the art forms that is often quickest to respond to contemporary events and issues. Austin’s own theater community, for example, has already seen a raft of new works created and produced at least partially in response to the outcome of the 2016 election.

So what is a classical theater company to do to keep their presentation of timeless works crucially engaged in today’s important conversations? This was the conundrum that Ann Ciccolella, artistic director of Austin Shakespeare, found herself facing earlier this year. Her solution? Bring back to the stage a classic drama that is already inextricably linked with political commentary — Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” a slightly fictionalized version of the Salem witch trials that is frequently seen as an allegory for Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee’s communist witch hunts of the 1950s.

“Generally timeliness is just something that kind of comes up with a classic,” Ciccolella says. “But I have to admit that, like many, many people, after the shock of the November election I was looking for things to do, and this is one of them. I really wanted a play that we could perform under our mission as a literary masterpiece and a classic, and this really hit the spot.”

However, given that Austin Shakespeare already has a full season of big shows coming up, “The Crucible” will be mounted for four nights only as a fully costumed staged reading, directed by Ciccolella. Just as important as the production itself, she hopes, will be the talkbacks that the company holds after every performance, allowing audience members to ask questions and share their thoughts with the performers and creative team.

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One of the conversation points that is sure to come up is the political connotations of presenting a play about authoritarian attempts to destroy the nature of truth itself. Ciccolella says she sees “The Crucible” as a positive example of what to do in such a situation: “My interest has always been more about John Proctor, the hero — and some would say antihero — of the play, because Miller makes him such a flawed character. I just think he’s a good model for us. Speaking out is not an easy thing to do, and in that sense Proctor is heroic, because he knows that he’s going to put himself in a very vulnerable situation, and he still speaks out.”

Ciccolella says she hopes the play will speak especially to students, who will have the opportunity to see Miller’s vision performed rather than just reading it in class. She particularly wants to draw high school students’ attention to the Long Center’s EyeGo to the Arts program, which sets aside $5 tickets to every performance for students with a high school ID.

Ultimately, Ciccolella believes “The Crucible” exceeds its pedagogical and historical connotations and complications to create a resonant, gripping story that will speak to today’s audiences: “I think the play is much larger than that in its scale, and that’s partly why I think it’s so timely.”

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