By Christopher Arnott
6:00 AM EDT, October 29, 2013
The sweeping movements. The provocative bursts of silence. The darkness. The fear and loathing. The sinister conspiracies. The vulnerability of the victims.
The subject matter of The Witching Hour seems appropriate to Halloweentime — except for the fact that the show's protagonist, 17th century Wethersfield landowner Katherine Harrison, wasn't really a witch. She was just accused of being one.
The Judy Dworin Performance Project, which for nearly 25 years has been deftly blending dance, theater, local history and other arts into elaborate performance pieces, tells Harrison's story, and examines the greater issues surrounding it, this weekend at the Wadsworth Athenaeum's Aetna Theater.
The Witching Hour, Dworin said in a phone interview last week, "is about people who are different. People who went beyond the boundaries of what Puritan society thought was acceptable. These people became targets." Katherine Harrison's main offense was that, in the view of some in her community, she had risen above her station. Brought to the area as a servant, she had inherited a large plot of land, granting her wealth and power. She was roundly disliked by her neighbors, who testified against her by the dozens in a witchcraft case that dragged on for a couple of years.
Harrison was the last convicted witch in Connecticut, ultimately eluding a death sentence. Her trial caused Connecticut to extensively revise how witchcraft cases were prosecuted, so that they required numerous corroborating witnesses and not just a single accuser.
But it's "the small-mindedness of communities" that fascinates Dworin. "The outside causes that cause fear. It's still happening. This is an historical incident that's still relevant." She uses Harrison as an example of countless persecutions of innocent women over the centuries. "I chose her to be the voice for everybody."
The Witching Hour has been staged twice before. The first version, presented at the Aetna Theater back in 1994, was "all over the place," Dworin says. She revisited the material three years ago at the Charter Oak center, and was pleased with the results but still had a few other ideas she wanted to try. "This time," she feels, "it's cohered."
One big change in the current production is the introduction of male dancers. Previously, the patriarchal judges and neighbors were suggested by giant trees (puppets designed by Ann Cubberly). At the Aetna Theater this weekend, those trees will be part of an art installation at the entrance to the performance space.
As with all her work, Dworin has created The Witching Hour using a variety of styles and media. While dance may be seen as a major component of what she does, she also uses narration, scripted dialogues and different types of acting and movement. She also isn't afraid of complex, nuanced narratives. The Judy Dworin Performance Project's 2011 piece In This House concerned a New London building which was home to both slave owners and abolitionists within the space of a few decades.
One key element of The Witching Hour is sign language. Sign language specialist Deborah Thompson not only consulted on The Witching Hour but is one of the performers, live-signing aspects of the story. "She's kind of a witness to all of it," Dworin says. The director/choreographer developed some of her staging concepts from Thompson's expressive gestures.
"I don't think this piece is trying to show witchcraft per se, because I don't think these women who were accused of being witches were practicing witchcraft. I'm trying to portray the response of the people in the community, that situation of false accusations, the ways that groups can make decisions based on not very good evidence."
Dworin's happy to conjure up The Witching Hour one more time. "I kept feeling that it wasn't' completely done," she says. There's also that ever-timely theme of being bullied, which we've been seeing lately everywhere from high schools to the fedreral government. Every witch way you look, it's always high time for The Witching Hour.
The Witching Hour
Presented by the Judy Dworin Performance Project, Nov. 1 & 2 at the Aetna Theater in the Wadsworth Athenaeum, 600 Main St., Hartford. $10-$20. (860) 527-9800, judydworin.org