Theater review: ‘Far Away’ and close to home

Shaking The Tree takes Caryl Churchill's End Times political fantasy for a spin

The cast of Shaking the Tree’s “Far Away”: (l to r) Patricia Hunter, Annabel Cantor, Beth Thompson, John San Nicolas./Sheri Earnhart

The shrieking had awakened Joan. An owl, Aunt Harper offers. No, she’s seen people. A party, Harper offers. Then why was Uncle bundling children into the shed? And hitting them with a metal stick? And what about the blood?

Uncle only hit the traitors, Harper offers, finally.

Caryl Churchill’s “Far Away” is THAT sort of play, a Caryl Churchill play, a fable with political implications along with the psychological. Its episodes start off in the ordinary world, with Harper writing a note and drinking her tea in a cozy little nook at home, say, and then start describing a world outside that is fantastic and horrible. And then we in the audience start assembling those stories in our own minds. We puzzle over the descriptions we’ve received, piece them together and recoil from them once it all starts to sink in.

Maybe we also laugh, I did during Shaking The Tree’s production on Saturday night, maybe a little nervously, because everything sounded so crazy.

****

In Portland, Churchill plays have been the province of the smaller theaters (Theatre Vertigo did a “Cloud Nine” last season, for example),  which is appropriate, perhaps, because that’s where they’ve often been conceived, in the experimental theater world of London. Her best-known plays, “Top Girls” and “Cloud Nine,” began as improvisational workshops, before Churchill molded the material into plays.

And not conventional plays, either, with clear storylines and character motivations. Although the character Joan is on stage practically the whole time, either in a younger incarnation or in a somewhat older version, “Far Away” isn’t an excavation of her personality, a tracking of the effects of childhood on her adult self.

Without giving too much away—the play lasts about an hour and spilling most of the beans would be easy—let’s start by saying that I completely enjoyed each of the actors. Even in small theaters these days in Portland you’re apt to run into satisfying acting performances, and Shaking the Tree’s production, directed toward performances of clarity and nuance by Samantha Van Der Merwe (founder and artistic director of Shaking the Tree Theatre and Studio), is no exception.

The actors all have impressive resumes and previous successful turns in well-received plays, even the youngest of them, the very composed Annabel Cantor as young Joan.  Beth Thompson plays older Joan, first as a new shop employee, and then as a carrier of terrible tales. John San Nicolas as Todd works with her in the shop, designing flamboyant hats, and they quickly become a mutual admiration society, and you know where that’s going to lead, right? Except “Far Away” isn’t a tale of redemption through love. Oh no. And then Patricia Hunter plays Aunt Harper, a kindly sort, we assume, before we start to understand her iron practicality.

So what is she practical about? Not the Uncle, because he never shows up. Not the traitors in our midst, because we’re never certain about THAT story. But she is practical about how the alliances are lining up. If you’re not sure about what side the crocodiles are on, Harper can tell you, not that we know where she got her information about them or the elephants or the Chileans. Have the Japanese secured an alliance with the weather? Are the Bolivians working on gravity? Who has dibs on darkness and silence?

Because that’s where we’re headed, the war of all against all, except Churchill doesn’t limit herself to homo sapiens, as Thomas Hobbes did. Whose side is the river on?

But even as I try to take the allegiances of ants or the lilies of the field seriously enough to type these sentences, I know that Churchill isn’t QUITE serious, that “Far Away” isn’t literal, and though it warns us about our complicity in our own end times, she’s also comic, maybe in the grotesque tradition, and metaphorical or fabulistic.

****

Churchill likes the play between the ordinary and the absurd. The “office romance” between Todd and Joan, sketched in a few short scenes in the middle of the play, seems so normal, until you start to figure out what’s going on, the heads upon which those hats will sit, and where those heads are going. And suddenly the office politics, the typical complaints about management, are breathtakingly… banal. As in Hannah Arendt’s formulation of the banality of evil.

I loved how San Nicolas and Thompson played these scenes together, so naturalistically, drawing closer to each other one compliment at a time, softer and softer, reaching an understanding both professional and personal, one hat at a time. The evil outside the workshop  parades by unacknowledged.

I also liked how “Far Away” doesn’t quite end, arriving at the same “normality” with which it begins, before a scream wakes up young Joan and she tentatively edges into her aunt’s space to find out the explanation for what she has seen. A brave moment, when you think about it, and the more you think about it, the braver it becomes.

NOTES

“Far Away”  runs 7 pm Thursday-Sundays, at Shaking The Tree Theatre, 1407 SE Stark St, through Sept. 22. The show is recommended for ages 14 & up. Tickets are $25 ($20 Students/Seniors). You can book tickets online  or by calling the box office at 503-235-0635.

 

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