Review: ‘Terminer’ Makes Something New of the Salem Witch Trials
An impeccable production that leaves one with questions and hopes
Continuing Recital’s sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2019–2020 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of Terminer by Philip Wesley Gates, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo and guest panelists Jason Baldinger, Emma Vescio, and Samir Gangwani. Read their bios at the end of the review. And read our preview of the performance here.
By David Bernabo
Philip Wesley Gates and the cast of Terminer revisit the Salem witch trials, a historical event that is known widely but, often, superficially. In re-examining trial transcripts and historical accounts, Gates uncovers a web of conflicting agendas — the powerful accusing the powerless of witchcraft, victims of abuse exacting revenge by identifying wizards. The team uses trial re-enactments, performed rituals, choreography, and beautiful stage and sound design to deliver a series of case studies that attempt to build parallels between the exploitation of power circa 1692 to the systems of logic and decision-making that impact society today.
The world of Terminer could be viewed as historical, as a period piece set in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, but it would be more accurate to consider the performance as a contemporary reading of past events and current developments. Historical reenactments of court trials that indulge in the peculiar language of the time mix with fantastical current-day abstractions branching out into topics of artificial intelligence and computational thinking.
I should say that our review panel was split on the success of many of the ideas in Terminer. As we go through this review, I’ll point out some of the divergent opinions.
During the preshow, Leif Ketill Sudorn announces that they are the evening’s facilitator and resident witch, setting the context that tonight’s performance is a ritual, of sorts, where the audience is invited to participate and be present. During one of the rituals, the audience passes a wicker-like ball through the crowd. Later during the court scenes, audience members chip in a few lines, cleverly emulating the vocal crowds at the original trials. However, while the untrained audience members nobly read their lines without too much lagtime, their voices were not amplified, rendering certain lines inaudible for sections of the audience.
After the introduction, the performance falls into a pattern of ritual and reenactment.
The reenactments detail the ways that Satan or some other evil force infiltrates the minds of those accused of witchcraft. Standing on symmetrical patterns, sometimes movement would take the place of voice while, at other times, characters would speak of witches “pricking and pinching” and some phantom “man whispering in their ear.” The glee in which the performers swim in these 17th century witch-themed buzzwords recalls the love of form and obsession of word choice in something like John Barton Wolgamot’s luscious In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women. Meaning is woven into patterns, patterns are constructed to convey meaning. Humorously, some of the witnesses unravel stream-of-conscious stories that prove more damning the more ridiculous and random they become. Language becomes a weapon.
Rituals consist of specific actions — a heavy, woven rope is formed into a circle, batches of straw are spread in equal distances. It is interesting to consider the difference in performing a ritual versus the performance of performing a ritual. Is each action imbued with meaning or are some actions constructed to give each performer something to do to create balance within the choreography? The ambiguity is interesting, and at the very least, the actions provide pockets of quiet reflection.
About midway through the piece, the initial structure breaks apart. The cast playfully calls out witch-related clickbait and listicle titles, articles that promise a shortcut to deep knowledge. Soon, headphones in place, the cast is reciting the results of artificial intelligence-generated histories of the Salem witch trials. To gain the full impact of this section, prior knowledge that these texts are AI-generated is helpful; otherwise, the texts are confusing as they are similar to but lack the coherency of the trial language. Ariel Xiu’s recitation of the AI text brings the most humor as their character seems to understand that the text is incomprehensible and that they are part of a new system that lacks empathy for the receiver.
In hindsight, elements of this collapse of history — where period set pieces and ideas mix with the present — are visible in the preshow actions of the performers. As the audience enters the theater and settles into their seats, the performers — Rachel Lange, Moriah Ella Mason, Sudorn, and Xiu — casually navigate a stage decorated with items the span centuries — colorful headphones, melted red candles, a wooden rocking chair, and a large wheel.
Gates brings the Salem Witch Trials into the present. Artificial intelligence is introduced as a contemporary source of information that builds power through the control and dissemination of history and knowledge. A little later, the topic of computational thinking presents a mobius strip of understanding that positions data-driven predictions as the way to understand a world where data-driven predictions feed into the construction of the world. This network of cross motivations and biases is a direct tie back to Salem and its web of complexity.
Next comes an interruption. The back doors of the stage open. Nicki Minaj’s context-heavy Lil Kim diss track “Stupid Hoe” blasts through the speakers and the two “interrupters,” Windafire and Janine Paulson (who also designed the costumes), set the stage ablaze in “fire” — brilliant yellow, orange, and red objects. The patterns that came before are sliced through. The binary that came before (witch/not witch, expectations of man/woman, in power/not in power) is decimated, and there is a sense that this decimation will allow a more hopeful future to develop.
Vastly different than the detailed sound design and careful mixing that came before, the Minaj track is an effective interruption. As far as inspiring hope, the track is confusing. There is some scholarship that positions the song (and the accompanying music video, which is not represented in Terminer) as a conversation starter for contemporary discussions on black feminism, but the tear down of a peer in the pursuit of capitalist enterprise sends a mixed message.
By the end of the piece, the knowing wink of humor in the beginning of the piece is replaced with more overt absurdity. The cast, led by a very humorous Windafire, reveals that death by burning or some other means could be avoided if the accused admits to the charge of witchcraft.
Terminer is ambitious. Terminer attempts to cover big ideas — ideas about life and existence and the relationships of the haves and the could-haves-but-shit-was-kept-in-the-hands-of-the-few-because-of-an-endless-series-of-power-structures. In our review panel, we were split between thinking the handling of past and present was clever vs. thinking that the move into the present was out of joint with how the piece was introduced. There was a general thought that the introduction of the AI components, which were also included in the sound design, need to be more clearly defined.
But, I think, part of the reason that Terminer is open to these criticisms is because the piece is extremely well-executed. The lighting by Ethan Hollinger beautifully lights every scene, setting a different tone for each development in the performance. Aaron Landgraf’s sound design splinters between four corners of sound, clearly and vividly allowing the pre-programmed sounds to feel natural with the words and sound emanating from the performers. The set design by Sasha Schwartz plays with height and width, allowing performers to fully interact with the complex layout of the New Hazlett Theater, a wonderful stage that opens many options for performers.
Given the month-long composition process and four days of tech, the creative team produced a humorous, tightly-structured, solidly performed experimental performance addressing some of the core issues affecting how we all move through the world. By the end of the performance, we (the ensemble and the audience) have moved from the simple to the complex. Our collective cursory knowledge of the Salem Witch Trials is now upgraded to a level that acknowledges the complexity of motivations behind the accusations and outcomes. The witch trials, while complex in their specific niche of historical oppression, expand to immense complexity when Terminer factors in the vague ambitions of artificial intelligence and its near-certain future as an influencer of knowledge and, thusly, an influencer of future actions. As if humanity’s quagmire of ambitions and dreams, jealousies and prejudices, knowledge and fictions aren’t enough, now we have soulless bots getting into the mix.
The biggest challenge for Terminer is allowing hope for the future to shine through the mountains of case studies and evidence detailing humanity’s need for exploitation and suffering in the name of control and power. It’s kind of like one of those cooking contest shows where a chef makes a delicious cake using heirloom Crapaudine beets, but when the judge tastes it, they can only identify the overpowering rosewater. It’s still a great cake, but some of the intention injected into the piece isn’t apparent in the outcome. Despite the noble actions of the interrupters, Terminer does a better job at filling in historical blanks rather than proposing a way forward.
Jason Baldinger is a poet from Pittsburgh. He’s the author of several books the most recent of which, the chaplet, Fumbles Revelations (Grackle and Crow) is available now, and the collection Fragments of a Rainy Season (Six Gallery Press) which is coming soon. You can hear Jason read his poems at jasonbaldinger.bandcamp.com as well as on a recently released cassette by the band Theremonster.
David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Watererer, Host Skull and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.
Samir Gangwani is an interdisciplinary performance artist, curator, and educator who focuses on igniting conversations on disenfranchised communities, mindfulness explorations, and action-based scores for self-care and emotional support. She believes we can combat discrimination that occurs throughout the world by providing safe spaces for people of different backgrounds to communicate and collaborate. Gangwani’s work has been featured at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, Queens Museum, Panoply Performance Laboratory, Fuse Factory Electronics and Digital Arts Lab, and Public Space One.
Emma Vescio is a curator and arts writer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She received her Bachelors of Arts in History of Art and Architecture from the University of Pittsburgh. Her research involves relationships with objects, intimacy, queer theory, definitions, personal archives, and time. Vescio has curated shows at Bunker Projects, the Silver Eye Lab, PULLPROOF Studio, Lucky Cloud, G1|CW, Phosphor Project Space, and The Union Hall.