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‘John Proctor is the Villain’ Review: An All-Around Triumph

Brianna Martinez, Jules Talbot, Victoria Omoregie, and Haley Wong in “John Proctor is the Villain,” directed by Margot Bordelon. Runs at Calderwood Pavilion through March 10.
Brianna Martinez, Jules Talbot, Victoria Omoregie, and Haley Wong in “John Proctor is the Villain,” directed by Margot Bordelon. Runs at Calderwood Pavilion through March 10. By Courtesy of T. Charles Erickson
By Vivienne N. Germain, Crimson Staff Writer

In 2018, teenage girl culture favored the Brandy Melville Alien Ringer Tee and Taylor Swift’s sixth album, “reputation.” Today, that shirt is “vintage,” and Brandy Melville’s new designs are popular, while Swift’s fans await a re-record of “reputation” and an upcoming eleventh album. Former trends faded, but their foundational agents persist. The Huntington’s production of “John Proctor is the Villain” includes both the alien shirt and “reputation,” displaying the passage of time and suggesting that present-day culture — while different on the surface — remains the same at its core.

In “John Proctor is the Villain,” a funny and moving play by Kimberly Belflower, teenage girls grapple with relationships, power, and finding their voices in 2018, as they concurrently study “The Crucible,” a classic text that parallels their lives during the height of the “Me Too” movement. Directed by Margot Bordelon, The Huntington’s phenomenal production of “John Proctor is the Villain” runs at The Calderwood Pavilion until March 10. The play beautifully harmonizes contrasting tones to tell a complex story in a captivating show. Beyond doubt, “John Proctor is the Villain” triumphs as an all-around success.

As a coming-of-age tale about sexual assault, the play juxtaposes youth life with adult topics. Bordelon smoothly blends funny with poignant, fiery with gentle, and simple with complicated. When a heavy conversation about sexual assault shifts into hysterical laughter, the friends’ guffawing further reveals their distress. When a goofy boy and an outspoken girl share an unexpectedly vulnerable conversation, the scene — staged seated on the floor — evokes love and empathy for the characters. When a few girls mention Harry Styles during a challenging discussion about bodily ownership and sexual consent, their buoyant physicality positions teenage innocence beside imperative maturity. In “John Proctor is the Villain,” Bordelon provides profundity and levity, which neither detract from nor clash with each other, but instead enhance the show.

The cast delivers remarkable performances, aside from fluctuating attempts at Southern accents. The actors who portray teenagers almost rely too heavily on a caricature of childhood, opting for overdramatic comedic choices, but the hyperbolic acting benefits the play. It makes the characters charming, accentuates their humor, and underscores their youth, which emphasizes the incongruence between adorable, developing minds and agonizing, grown-up issues. Additionally, the actors, including those who portray adults, express convincing, nuanced feelings in touching or despondent moments. Alongside exaggerated comedy, the affective drama proves even more heartbreaking.

The entire cast successfully develops well-rounded, distinct characters, but Isabel Van Natta (Shelby), Victoria Omoregie (Nell), and Jules Talbot (Beth) stand out due to their impressive emotional range. Van Natta’s Shelby is both aggressive and lovable, Omoregie portrays a confidently bold Nell while finding compelling tenderness, and Talbot balances Beth’s eagerness and willpower with her insecurity and sensitivity. As a result of these actors’ exceptional skill, their characters shine. Van Natta conveys trauma, confusion, and pain, not only in despair but also in humor and joy, drawing audiences to Shelby’s intricate depth. Omoregie and Talbot are consistently hilarious — and their comedy embodies Nell’s and Beth’s specific personalities, respectively, making them the most engaging characters in the play.

“John Proctor is the Villain” also thrives from Bordelon’s and the designers’ thorough attention to detail. For example, colorful lighting and loud music end each scene immediately after the last line, producing abrupt, intense transitions. These choices replicate the fast pace and cognitive whiplash of high school: Scenes conclude suddenly and emphatically, like the jarring ring of a school bell. In real-life passing periods, teenagers bustle through hallway chatter, then sit for the next class. In the show’s transitions, actors interact in character, then form tableaus for the next scene. Bordelon immerses the audience in adolescent life: Teenagers are forced to shift their minds quickly, and the audience must do the same.

As “John Proctor is the Villain” is stellar in nearly every area, it is impossible to communicate all of its strengths. Detailed scenery by Kristen Robinson creates a realistic classroom, while subtle greenery on the backdrop nods to “The Crucible.” Fluorescent overhead lighting by Aja M. Jackson imitates a familiar element of high school, and dim lighting for one scene’s non-school setting supports its dialogue’s weight and intimacy. Costumes by Zoë Sundra reflect the 2018 setting, the characters’ ages, and their individual identities — especially teenager Raelynn’s self-growth, as her attire gradually changes in accordance with her personal development.

Overall, The Huntington’s “John Proctor is the Villain” is a must-see production. With artfully executed complexity and comprehensive success, the play surpasses the quality of most contemporary theater. Similar to alien T-shirts, “reputation,” and other aspects of 2018, #MeToo disappeared from mainstream culture, but its underlying problems — prevalent male-perpetuated sexual assault and the silencing of women’s voices — persist in 2024. “John Proctor is the Villain” explores these problems and highlights their stagnation with fresh creativity. Despite its weighty subject matter, the play closes with an uplifting scene. It does not provide a rose-colored conclusion, but it offers empowerment at the end of a striking show.

“John Proctor is the Villain” runs at The Huntington’s Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA (527 Tremont St.) through March 10.

—Staff writer Vivienne N. Germain can be reached at vivienne.germain@thecrimson.com.

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