“Does anyone still wear a hat?”* Prisoners on their way to execution do - and big fancy ones at that - at Sharon Playhouse in an incomprehensible production of Caryl Churchill’s FAR AWAY. For the British playwright’s fans, myself included, or seasoned theatergoers accustomed to Churchill’s ambiguous narratives, even her most popular works - CLOUD NINE, TOP GIRLS, and most recently ESCAPED ALONE - can be demanding . This lesser-known work, a 45-minute one-act, first produced at London’s Royal Court in 2000 and then at New York Theatre Workshop in 2002, has since been mostly confined to directing labs in university drama programs. This production belongs there.
Churchill’s surreal, almost absurdist storytelling is especially befuddling in Sharon because the program, which includes a descriptive plot synopsis, wasn’t distributed to patrons until they exited the performance, thus inviting an experience more tortured for theatergoers than for the prisoners in the play. An opening scene between an elder woman called Harper and a young girl establishes a dark, cruel - you guessed it , dystopian - State that has overrun the world. Next, we see two educated people (perhaps artists, it isn't clear) named Todd and Joan (presumably the young girl in the first scene years later), perhaps closeted resistors, perhaps compliant citizens (again, it isn't clear), at milliners’ worktables, in presumably State-forced employment, handcrafting elaborate hats.
In the next scene, we witness a procession of more than a dozen single figures plodding in clumsily stylized steps, dressed in white underwear and adorned with Todd and Joan’s creations. Think of a slo-mo runway fashion show of hallucinogenic hybrids of headdresses of Carmen Miranda, Pride marchers, and Easter Paraders - everything from a soccer field to reptiles atop their heads - produced by “gifted” arts & crafts summer campers. It's clear Churchill envisioned this scene as nightmarish, but here it's bizarre, even perversely amusing: the playwright's intent gets trivialized. Worse, subverted.
Next, we learn that the figures were presumably enemies of the State on their way to their death only because when Joan queries why all the hats aren't used again, Todd informs her that the authorities burn the hats along with the bodies. (One had to listen really closely to pick that up.) In the final scene, Harper, Todd, and Joan outfitted in black tie (why isn't clear) secretly conspire to exchange political intelligence about warfare among national tribes, involving natural phenomenon and animal species around the globe. The Bolivians, for example are up to no good with gravity. Joan laments all of this. Stage dark. (Thank God.)
Churchill is not unknown for humor, black that it is, but it’s cruelly unarticulated in Sharon. Todd, at some point remarking about the hat business to Joan, says “It’s a metaphor”. Dah. If ever a production needed a note of irony it was here, but none was forthcoming. The stark set design is static, too. The stage is an alley the length of the Bok Gallery with tiered audience seating to one, long side. The other side, the acting space, is the same length - thus making the slow hat march from one end of the space to the other seem endless - with four plain tables and chairs. The lighting design by Oona Curley is more inventive and, to blessed relief, bursts brightly for a few electrifying moments, adding a few sparks of energy to the dark monotony.
Two performances hold some interest. Veteran Mia Katigbak as Harper lends some dimension and ballast to her brief scenes. The statuesque Madeline Wise brings a sharp intelligence to Joan. But the production hasn’t been shaped to allow any empathy for either of their characters. Had anyone involved in this production considered the fundamental premise of theater that for themes of a play to be relevant to an audience, an audience needs to relate to the plight of the characters?
In the end, FAR AWAY is supposed to be an apocalyptic vision of a planet where man and nature is at war, where man turns against the world we know. Churchill's ending is irresolute, but still should instill fear, dread, sadness, horror - some kind of emotion. Worse than being at times dull, pretentious, silly, inert, and sophomoric, this production doesn’t elicit any emotion at all. It’s not dramatic. Ah, well. As an enthusiastic admirer of Caryl Churchill’s works, at least I can say I’ve now seen FAR AWAY but regrettably I don't think the way Churchill intended.
*Actually, a signature line of Joanne, the middle-age, vodka stinger-guzzling Upper East Side sophisticate, from “Ladies Who Lunch” made famous by Elaine Stritch in Stephen Sondheim’s COMPANY (1970). And actually, this has nothing to do with Caryl Churchill or FAR AWAY, with apologies to Mr. Sondheim and Ms Churchill both.
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