REVIEW: The Salem Bitch Trials (Auckland Fringe)

Review by Tim George

[Eat Your Heart Out Daniel Day-Lewis]

An improvised riff on The Crucible that makes about as much sense as the historical event it is inspired by, The Salem Bitch Trials is based on the same formula as Mackenzie’s Daughters, with most of the same cast (featuring a rotating cast of 18, the opening night performance featured Alice Canton, Lana Walters, Brynley Stent, Karin McCrackin, Johanna Cosgrove, Emma Newborn, Kura Forrester, Jess Joy Wood, Virginia Frankovich, Donna Brookbanks and Rhiannon McCall).

Aside from the costumes, the only pieces of art direction are a couple boxes, fake candles and a cross that serve as the utilitarian set.

The show starts with a couple of ideas from the audience: A hobby, a secret activity and an occupation, which end up being ridiculously important to the, uh, plot:

Despite the new pastime known as skiing, the inhabitants of Salem are cracking under the yolk of their own religious beliefs and the infernal vice known as plucking hairs. When a young girl goes missing, the community rapidly descends into anarchy and murder as they search for a culprit. Any culprit…

The whole exercise zips along, powered by the cast’s by turns inspired and strained attempts to build plot and character out of thin air. It’s the rare show where corpsing is celebrated.

The hair-plucking was an audience pick, but functionally it ended up working well as a signifier of the community’s dogmatic adherence to their faith. A (very thinly) veiled critique of the way religion is used to control women’s bodies? Sure, in a Mad Magazine kinda way (based on the show’s climax, it also ended up acting as a violent reflection of my audience’s anti-Francophile tendencies).

The whole cast is amazing – even when they fail, they are elevating the whole experience to another level of absurdity. Flubbed lines, missed cues and bad recall is the special sauce that makes this a meal worth eating.

I want to go into more detail but it will be completely irrelevant. Kura Forester and Brynley Stent are beamed in from another dimension – halfway between that old couple from One Foot In The Grave and Conan the Barbarian. That last sentence makes no sense, which is totally on theme for the show.

I don’t have any real critique, only a complaint based on personal preference: When a character goes missing, another character produces a photograph to identify her. I could have used a few more anachronisms.

I have no way of predicting what Salem Bitch Trials you will end up seeing, but based on whatever the hell I saw last night, you are in for a great time.

The Salem Bitch Trials plays Basement Theatre until 23 February. 

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