MOUNT VERNON — After a year of gestation, Iowa City playwright Jennifer Fawcett has delivered something magical.
The text of “Birth Witches” is riveting, the subtext enthralling and frightening.
The play, which examines the clash between science and midwifery in 1606 London, speaks volumes to modern forces in opposition over the role of government in reproductive health care, but Fawcett never beats you over the head with that. Instead, it’s up the viewer to peel back the layers of what’s unfolding onstage to see how it pertains to the world around us.
“Birth Witches” opened triumphantly Thursday night (10/10/13) in the Plumb-Fleming Black Box Theater at Cornell College. After a weekend run in Mount Vernon, it moves Oct. 18 to Nov. 3 to the Riverside Theatre mainstage in Iowa City. Both spaces are perfectly suited to showcase the immense artistry of this educational/professional collaboration.
Never for one minute do you think, “Oh, these are college kids.” The students are every inch as professional as the mentors sharing their stage and technical achievements.
Students Luke Brooks and Dorothy Jolly embody the passion and pathos of a gravedigger who aspires to be a doctor and a scullery maid who assists her grandmother, a midwife who has been assisting several generations of births. The young people are at the crossroads of the Scientific Revolution emerging from the Middle Ages.
Riverside veteran Tim Budd is at once sympathetic and maddening as the Doctor, leading the push into the birthing rooms after a disastrous experience with his pregnant wife. He becomes a sort of mad scientist eager to perfect a crude forceps technique so that men can assist births without touching the women and compromising their modesty. But really, his goal is to forge an untapped path to gold for his new profession.
His unnatural methods, however, escalate death and destruction in a process that had been playing out naturally with much greater success in the hands of skilled women and their soothing herbs and ways. Of course women and children had died in childbirth before, but the Doctor uses new fear and mass hysteria to turn the blame from his crude instruments to the midwives he deems instruments of the Devil.
Women and babies die onstage. These scenes are intense and brief, but not too gory for mature audiences. Blood stains the blankets, but doesn’t spill across the floor. Older teens should be able to handle the overall scope of the show, and it should spark some meaningful dialogue afterward.
The playwright hopes that will happen — that conversations will spill out into the lobby, parking lots and cars of the folks who see the show.
Guest designer Paul Sannerud’s scenery is simple yet gorgeous and intriguing. A series of ramps twist into a Celtic knot, enhanced by Courtney Schmitz Watson’s dramatic lighting casting patterns on the floor. Beautiful, faded pages of text twist and turn overhead. Sean Christopher Lewis’ sound design propels the drama of every mood.
Lifesize tattered rag puppets by student Daniel Dempsey cast Shakespearean spells, then “burn” under flaming lighting effects and hang above the stage as an ominous reminder as one by one, London’s midwives are rounded up, tortured, burned or hanged.
Cornell faculty designer Jenny Nutting Kelchen’s costumes are astounding in their textures and complexities, from servants’ plaincloths to royal robes. That’s so critical to an intimate production where the audience is practically sitting onstage with the actors. Wherever you look, your eyes land on something sumptuous and intriguing.
Guest director Leda Hoffmann’s directing is deft and artistic at every level, guiding the student Chorus of Fine Gentlemen of the Advancement of Med’cine to the brink of over-the-top lunacy, giving us the release we need from the dire circumstances unfolding around them.
Riverside founders Ron Clark and Jody Hovland anchor the acting troupe with the pathos and nuance of experience enhancing their every move. He is the Priest whose heart is breaking for the women around him, including Hovland, the wise Old Midwife schooled in the ways of nature and nurture, not science.
The show is pitch-perfect at every turn, told in a way equally entertaining and harrowing.
What: “Birth Witches” by Jennifer Fawcett
Mount Vernon: Plumb-Fleming Black Box Theatre at Cornell College; 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (10/11-12), 2 p.m. Sunday (10/13); free for Cornell students and staff, $7 to $10 public, (319) 895-4293, firstname.lastname@example.org or at the door
Iowa City: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St.; Oct. 18 to Nov. 3, 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; $15 to $30, Riverside Box Office, (319) 338-7672 or Riversidetheatre.org