Review by Willard Manus

Jen Silverman pretty much savages the modern world in WITCH, her fiendishly clever adaptation of the Jacobean drama, "The Witch of Edmonton," now running at the Geffen Playhouse.

Mixing modern slang with period talk, Silverman depicts mankind as grasping, greedy and murderous, except for the village witch, Elizabeth Sawyer (the gritty Maura Tierney), who is the only one in the village with any common decency. A feminist icon in Silverman's hands, she sees right through male pretense, patriarchy and chauvinism...and even rejects the blandishments of the devil when he comes on to her. Called Scratch (Evan Jonigkeit), this "junior" devil turns up in Edmonton like a traveling salesman, offering Fustian bargains to one and all: he'll do your bidding--make you rich, kill your enemies, etc.--in return for your soul. In Elizabeth's case, he's so smitten with her that he eventually breaks a company rule. He'll give her love...with nothing expected in return. Tempted as she is, Elizabeth turns him down: she simply can't believe in men's words--or even in hope itself.

All of this unfolds on Dane Laffrey's ingenious two-level set, the lower part of which serves as the common areas of Edmonton, a field, a tavern, etc. On the top part, serving as the castle, a food and drink-laden banquet table slides in and out. This is where the royals romp, under the forbidding gaze of two painted eyes (female, of course; it's a Jen Silverman play).

Sir Arthur Banks (Brian George) rules the roost, sounding off pompously about family legacy, power and property. He also rips into his gay son, Cuddy (Will Von Vogt), for having failed to marry and present him with progeny. Cuddy, who would rather spend his time Morris dancing rather than exploiting peasants and hunting birds, begins to boil with rage when he realizes Sir Arthur is thinking of cutting him out of his will and leaving everything to Frank Thorney (Ruy Iskander), a commoner who has become the old man's pet. Cuddy quickly signs a contract with the devil, telling him "you can have my soul if you promise to kill Frank."

The sixth character in WITCH is Winnifred (Vella Lovell), a serving wench with a secret: she is not only married to Frank but carrying his baby. Poor Winnifred is stunned and crushed when the sleazeball Frank pretends not to know her when Sir Arthur makes his generous offer. Even the devil is horrified by such craven human behavior.

Silverman's bloody, scabrous comedy is skillfully acted by the talented cast. Direction and production values are also top-notch, as is Mikhail Fiksel's clanging, caustic score.

(Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. For tickets and information call 310-208-5454 or visit geffenplayhouse.org)