Donnie Gott had a feeling she wanted to stage a production of “Witch” even before she read the script.
That desire was instilled by a Los Angeles Times piece that recounted a moment in which a spirited audience reaction to the play was muted by a man who shushed a group of largely female theater-goers with a curt “It’s just a play, folks. Relax!”
“I wanted to do that show that makes women laugh,” Gott said.
And now, that’s exactly what she’s doing. Theatre in the Rough’s production of “Witch,” directed by Gott, opens Friday at McPhetres Hall.
While the play is more contemporary than the Shakespeare-loving theater’s usual repertoire — its world premiere was in 2018 — Gott said once she and the company became familiar with the play, it was evident it was of a piece with previous Theatre in the Rough endeavors. The company tends to favor plays from the past with strong, sometimes surprising, modern resonance.
“Witch,” written by Jen Silverman is a recent retelling and reframing of a 17th century Jacobean drama written by three men.
“It revolves around the twin questions of despair and hope, which is different from the 1621 original, ‘The Witch of Edmonton,’” said Katie Jensen, Theatre in the Rough co-founder who portrays the supposed-witch Elizabeth Sawyer.
Modern context and dark humor turn a supposed recounting of real-life witchcraft in a small town into a piece that examines power systems, gender roles, subconscious biases and the meaning of humanity while telling a story that hinges on how men and one woman — the titular alleged witch — react when offered help from Scratch, the literal devil.
“Most everyone he approaches is fairly eager to trade their soul for whatever they want, and she’s not so sure,” Gott said.
That’s largely because Elizabeth — a character named for a real woman who was killed as a witch — isn’t a witch, but rather an isolated woman whose existence is reviled by the Edmonton elite.
But, the pitch from Scratch (Kelsey Riker) — insect-related maladies or warts for those who scorn Elizabeth — is also comparatively weak.
“There is a point in the story where Elizabeth calls out Scratch’s unconscious bias that he offers women these trivial offerings,” Gott said. “Whereas he offers men power and destruction and the ability to wield power in a destructive way or any way they want. She asks him, ‘What about wholesale slaughter? If that’s something I want, is that available for my soul?’”
Scratch responds that the request is a little advanced.
“There’s assumptions about our intellect or abilities based on the shape of our bodies,” Jensen said. “It asks a lot of incredible questions, but it couches them in some beautiful pieces of dark humor.”
In addition to probing questions coupled with laughs, the play traffics in relatable feelings. Jensen said following COVID isolation, she thinks many of Elizabeth’s struggles with public perception following prolonged isolation are something people, including her, can relate to.
The initially adversarial meeting between the definite devil and not-really witch precedes a begrudging respect and developing friendship that Jensen said provides a compelling core for the play.
“They become friends, and I think it’s between the two of them where the hook comes through because it turns into a love story — not a romantic story, but a different kind of love story,” Jensen said. “Although she isn’t a witch she casts a spell of sorts over Scratch.”
It’s a story told in large part through dialogue that Gott praised for its intelligence and humor.
However, the dialogue and a surprising musical number — a Theatre in the Rough production-specific flourish driven by a chorus consisting of Aaron Elmore, Stacy Katasse and Salissa Thole — is also likely a bit too profane for young children. As a point of reference, Gott said she would bring her teenager to “Witch” but not her 7-year-old child.
She expressed hope that some adolescents will be allowed to move past the salty language and see the show.
“There’s representation in this show,” Gott said. “There are queer characters. There are queer people playing characters. There are strong women. I think it’s important for young people to see that.”
• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.
Know & Go
What: Theatre in the Rough’s “Witch”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18; Saturday, Nov. 19; Wednesday, Nov. 23; Friday, Nov. 25; Saturday, Nov. 26; Thursday, Dec. 1; Friday, Dec. 2; Saturday, Dec. 3; Thursday, Dec. 8; Friday, Dec. 9; and Saturday, Dec. 10. 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 4; and Sunday, Dec. 11.
Where: McPhretres Hall, 325 Gold St.
Admission: Tickets are available online at brownpapertickets.com/event/5618286. General admission costs $30; $20 for seniors or students.