Prolific killer or serial healer? In the world-premiere La Tofana’s Poison Emporium from Macha Theatre Works, playwright Joy McCullough makes the case for notorious apothecary Giulia Tofana as a life-giver. Meanwhile, a healer of lore mixes up potions for love and death in Wagner’s epic Tristan and Isolde at Seattle Opera. Both run through 10/29.
(And if you haven’t met Tannie Maria in the Karoo, South Africa-set mystery series ‘Recipes for Love and Murder’ on Acorn TV or in Sally Andrew’s book of the same name, you really should get acquainted.)
They wouldn’t call you a witch if you only offered home remedies.
— La Tofana’s Poison Emporium
Prepare the drink of atonement … full to the brim.
— Tristan and Isolde captions
La Tofana’s Poison Emporium – Macha Theatre Works @ West of Lenin
Runs through 10/29. In Seattle (Fremont).
Her contemporaries regarded her as a witch. History looks back in shock and contempt at her likely death count. But what really motivated Giulia Tofana to concoct the potions and careful instructions that would kill countless men in 17th-century Italy, largely without leaving a trace?
This is the inquiry at the core of “fearless female theatre” Macha Theatre Works’ new show, a world premiere by local playwright and bestselling novelist Joy McCullough, directed by Artistic Director Amy Poisson. (The McCullough/Poisson collaboration is already well-known to many among Seattle audiences. Live Girls! Theater premiered Blood Water Paint in 2015, which Macha remounted in 2019 — just before Seattle Art Museum exhibited a painting at its center, Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes” — and Macha produced Smoke and Dust in 2017. See NWTheatre’s review of Blood Water Paint here, and interview with the playwright here.)
McCullough’s new work, the tongue-in-cheek-titled La Tofana’s Poison Emporium, transports audiences back a few centuries to a business where only women dared venture, acquiring cosmetics and potions for whatever ailed them. Usually that meant common maladies. But sometimes the malady was her husband — and, when there was no other way out of an abusive marriage and with no rights of her own, a woman-in-the-know might turn to Tofana’s.
Macha’s production, with set design by the excellent Parmida Ziaei, imagines Tofana’s as an elegant neighborhood drugstore. The prop-heavy set is wrangled by props designer Robin Macartney and props assistant Indira Rampersad, and cast in moody shadows by lighting designer Dani Norberg. Together, they’ve conjured an intriguing setup full of curious potions, a visible backroom where employees add gossip and commentary, and the main room up front that functions as pharmacy, social center, therapist’s office, and community clinic.
While Lady Tofana (Bianca Raso) is the centerpiece, the show is much more ensemble driven, with daughter Carmela (Ilze Riekstiņš) and customers Patrizia Moretti (Alba Davenport) and Violetta (Melodie Gorow) playing key roles. But the sleeper stars are Maria (Lisa Every) and Laura (Amy Van Mechelen), who heighten the drama with barbs from the prep room and recount much of the backstory. And Sydney Maltese plays a whole barrage of roles, from gossips to clerics. Together, they comprise Giulia Tofana’s orbit, and that’s the point of the show.
With La Tofana’s, McCullough looks to humanize she whom history has demonized, by elevating the place of the women who formed that community. Where history books are apt to inquire how many men Tofana killed and what judgment was passed after, La Tofana’s examines the why, the important tally counted not in men’s lives lost but in women’s lives saved.
It’s a dark story told with an unwavering eye toward understanding and empathy and, as the irreverent title hints, a good dose of humor, too. McCullough can’t rewrite history, but she sure has a keen eye for what it hasn’t told us. Or what those who’ve memorialized it chose not to.
La Tofana’s Poison Emporium runs through 10/29 at West of Lenin in Fremont. Tickets $11-$101 (sliding scale available for all), here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gender-neutral, single-stall; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Run time: just under 2 hours, with intermission.
* * *
Tristan and Isolde @ Seattle Opera
Runs through 10/29. At the Seattle Center (Mercer St. side).
Where Tofana owned her talent for concocting remedies, the healer of lore at the center of Richard Wagner’s opera epic, Tristan and Isolde, abdicated her gifts. Isolde possesses her own pharmacy of sorts, the potions passed down from her mother’s healing arts, along with one more sinister.
Rapt with grief, she instructs her servant Brangäne to use her own secret Aqua Tofana-style concoction on Tristan, the famed knight who slayed her love. But when she and Tristan both drink from the cup, she discovers her servant has defied her, replacing certain death with a love potion. The two fall hopelessly in love with one another but, since they can’t have each other, they pine for death instead.
Wagner’s opera premiered in Germany in 1865, but is based on a tale that’s much older. Still, the points of emphasis in this story lie with him, and rather than delve into interesting matters like why Isolde has shirked her legacy or is cowardly enough to require her servant to sully her hands, the story is wrapped up in Isolde and Tristan’s now-shared sense of futility.
The result is hours of those two whining. Meanwhile, the tensions only alluded to are, to me, the most interesting ones: the impossible position of Brangäne, ordered to kill, then awash in guilt from what Isolde accused was unforgivable betrayal; and the attempted saving-face of King Marke, whom his kin Tristan had turned into royal cuckold and fool.
Still, it’s a gorgeous show in parts. Seattle Opera’s orchestra is always grand. The set (designed by Diego Silano) — a backdrop of intricately drawn boat, trees, and shore — is interesting to look at, if occasionally over the top. (The video montages of waves screamed mid-’90s karaoke video and made for a weird juxtaposition — not only visually but when, during a high-brow German opera, they had me singing “Islands in the Stream” … mentally, of course.)
Amber Wagner’s soprano (as Brangäne) and Morris Robinson’s bass (as King Marke) are both enthralling. And while act 3 is hard to sit through — it’s a lot of uneventful whining with Tristan, not to mention the fact that you’ve already sat for two long acts by that point — there’s a nice payoff at the end. When Isolde arrives at last, after Tristan’s pining, Mary Elizabeth Williams somehow manages to fill the hall with beautiful vocals while sitting on the floor. How does she do that? Williams’ projection is the biggest piece of theatre magic in the show.
The performers in Seattle Opera’s show are top-notch. The story, however, could stand to be shelved.
Tristan and Isolde runs through 10/29 at Seattle Opera (in McCaw Hall, Seattle Center/Mercer side). Tickets $42-$306, here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms available by most of them. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Run time: just under 5 hours, with 2 intermissions (totaling 50 minutes). Performed in German with English captions.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.