Through November 20|
SOMETHING WICKED American Repertory Theatre of WNY/Compass Performing Arts Center
Governments execute people.
Some are like China which does it in mass numbers.
Others are states like Texas, which does it in numbers unknown in the rest of the country.
It wasn’t always that way.
New York executed at least 11-hundred going back to the Dutch in New Amsterdam.
Many of them died in the electric chair in Sing Sing Prison, the infamous “up the river” of Hollywood movies.
Executions often occurred on the local level, like Sheriff Grover Cleveland executing a prisoner in a Downtown Buffalo jail.
James Marzo reached much deeper into local history for his “Something Wicked.”
It goes back to 1824, the time when the Erie Canal wasn’t open, although it was only months away from the ceremonial opening the next summer.
Buffalo was a lake port of small size and big dreams, soon to be at the end of “Clinton’s Ditch.”
Late that year, a local banker disappeared on a cold December night.
The investigation was handled by the new Erie County Sheriff’s Department, then only three-years old and tiny.
In Marzo’s play, we never meet Sheriff Littlefield, only Undersheriff Torrey (John F. Kennedy) and Deputy Willard (David Wysocki).
It was a community of alcohol and violence, with the local Establishment centered on the Eagle Tavern, located on the current site of the Liberty Building.
It housed great debates and even the Marquis de Lafayette on a visit to Buffalo.
In the play, it’s run by Sadie (Suzanne Hibbard) and the tavern’s entertainment appears to be by Flory (Susan King), with guitar on stage and on some multiple keyboard machine on the side of the stage.
The heart of the play is the three Thayer brothers, Israel (Justin Pope), Nelson (Charles McGregor) and Isaac (Matthew Mogenson).
They’ve lost their parents and live on an ill-maintained farm, mortgaged to John Love (Michael Breen).
Israel is in lust with Sadie and Nelson also wants her.
They constantly intermix with Torrey and Willard in the Eagle.
They don’t spend much time working on their farm to pay off the mortgage, even borrowing more and spending it on gambling, booze and Sadie.
It’s a play and what happens is inevitable.
The brothers dither and botch it, but they murder Love, steal his cash and mortgage papers and bury him in the rock-solid frozen ground.
Clearly, the disappearance of a banker draws attention and the Sheriff’s Department spends weeks probing the disappearance, gradually homing in on the brothers and arresting them.
The trial was quick and the jury deliberation quicker and sentence was immediate, death by hanging.
That gives Marzo a change to have the brothers blame each other, since they were tried under the felony murder doctrine that all paid the penalty even if only one actually killed Love.
The triple hanging attracted people from far away, thousands of them, because the execution was public, the gallows built on the current site of City Hall.
Covered with hoods, the three-men were hung.
It’s an interesting story, a look at Buffalo’s roots.
Director Matthew LaChiusa does a lot with his theater’s traditionally very limited budgets, intermixed with King’s music.
He has a couple of strong performances, Pope’s Israel and McGregor’s Nelson and Kennedy’s Torrey.
He also has the basic, the historical story of a village trying to rebuild from the devastation of being burned by the Brits in the War of 1812, retaliation for American soldiers burning Niagara-on-the-Lake and Toronto.
It’s lethal bad behavior on the frontier, as people continue to move into Seneca territory and the great canal nears completion.
That’s why “Something Wicked” is worth seeing.
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