Two eyes of glowing embers and the fiery brimstone that spews forth from the pulpit open the darkly comic tour de force playing on the windswept corner of York and Chapel.
In a novel incarnation directed by Mark Wing-Davey, Amy Freed’s new comedy “Safe in Hell” receives its East Coast premier this month at the Yale Repertory Theater.
Cotton Mather, imagined as a stringy, intensely Gothic 30-year-old, paces the stage trying to formulate the perfect greeting for the return of his father, the venerable Increase Mather. His father arrives and the plot begins, winding through the Salem witch trials and the younger Mather’s twisted path toward “righteousness.”
When Salem calls on the help of the esteemed Increase Mather to help with its pesky witch problem, Mather is unable to make the trip due to his growing age and worsening health. He sends his overzealous son Cotton to the village in his place, and Salem’s gentler Puritanism appears heretical to Cotton’s fanaticism. Cotton traces the heresy to Salem’s minister, Reverend Doakes, who has begun to preach grace and love in the woods surrounding the village. Ignoring his father’s reprimands to keep from going too far, he makes his way through the forest of lies and gossip that form the trials following his own harsh, unwavering form of Puritanism.
The parallels to contemporary politics are nearly inescapable: A father-and-son pair of leaders seem to differ on key principles of action, with the younger growing more conservative and fanatical than the elder.
Wing-Davey said he was attracted to the play because of its “brooding sense of the present.” In regard to its historical setting he said, “I’m in the ‘history only exists in the present’ school of theater.” But “Safe in Hell” is not intended to be just a contemporary political satire in Puritan’s clothes.
Freed began the play as a study of Cotton Mather 10 years ago, but its completion was repeatedly delayed by Freed’s other work, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist “Freedomland.” Her inspiration came from the historical record of the younger Mather’s encounters with another minister in a conflict over who “owned” the faith in Puritan New England. Mather’s apparent change in character drew Freed to his story, she said.
“He started his life trying to be an antenna for God,” Freed said. “What happens when he makes a choice that is deliberately political? What happens to his faith?”
The play’s delayed completion has created perfect timing for its entrance. Acknowledging the serendipitous cultural climate, Freed said an important part of a theatrical production lies in its relevancy to the world outside the theater.
“You want it to have some sense of inevitability,” she said. “Why is this in the world at this time?”
Although the satiric features and treatment of the Salem Witch trials in Freed’s play immediately invoke comparisons with Miller’s seminal play “The Crucible,” the similarities end at the sharing of a few character names and contemporary features. Miller focuses on betrayal, mob psychology, and what it means to tell the truth, while Freed shifts the play’s concerns to metaphysical trepidations with faith, the true nature of religion and the poisonous aspects of self-betrayal.
“Safe” also chooses to tackle the heavier issues with a dose of humor. Freed contends that “Truth and absurdity are not in contradiction,” and finds that giving the show permission to be silly prevents it from turning into a lecture.
Chad Callaghan ’07, who plays multiple roles and puppets a few more, characterized the show as “very funny, but also very spooky.” According to Callaghan, Freed and Wing-Davey have taken a number of risks with their adaptation.
Callaghan is a columnist for the News.
Wing-Davey also said the production is funny, but compared it to the films of Tim Burton. He said he and Freed have worked closely in realizing the new incarnation of her play. Wing-Davey has found new areas to explore in the text, while Freed has written several additions to her established scenes.
The innovative puppetry forms only one part of the visually ambitious concept Wing-Davey has conceived for the new production. Wing-Davey said he and his design team tried to develop “a sense of enclosure and dark mystery and also allow comedy to happen on it.”
In addition to inventive scenic elements that include mysterious monoliths, the director has also placed an emphasis on strengthening the ensemble of actors. Callaghan said the entire first week of rehearsal was spent weaving the actors together into an ensemble and ensuring that they all remain on the same acting plane. Bringing actors from disparate backgrounds into production for the same play can create discrepancies in the interpretation of the play’s world, but Wing-Davey’s emphasis on consistency and a tight ensemble guarantees that all the characters inhabit the same world, he said.
The life the new actors brought to the text and their characters inspired Freed during the creative process, she said.
“Their force of belief takes it to the next step in the journey,” Freed said.
Crafting the comedic elements of the play was paramount to the playwright because many jokes rely on audience recognition and identification, she said. Her “historical fantasy” does not aspire to accuracy, choosing rather to tell the story in an accessible fashion. The language does not aspire to “period” accuracy, but incorporates contemporary slang alongside historical features, she said.
“For me there’s a pretentiousness of saying this is how people spoke,” Freed said. “I like to kick a window out and say I’m here in 2005.”
After the final curtain closes on this production, Freed said she hopes to find “Safe in Hell” an off-Broadway venue in New York City. Commercial theater is often prohibitive to new comedic plays, but nonprofit theaters like the Yale Rep can often have outstanding success producing promising, original work. With its contemporary relevance, brisk wit and insightful commentary on human nature, “Safe in Hell” looks to spark a flurry of excitement in a 21st century New England that echoes the dark times of the Puritan colonies.