April 18, 2011

It’s Us v. Them in Far Away

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If you’re happy there’s something wrong with you, because what you should be is very, very afraid. At least that’s a warning of the Schwartz Center’s most recent production in the Black Box theater this weekend, Far Away, a 40 minute, one act play in three scenes by the British playwright Caryl Churchill. The performance was directed by Lindsay Cummings, a graduate student in the Department of Theatre, Film and Dance.

Published in 2000, Far Away comes out of a very specific tradition in theater. Some might know of this tradition as the Theater of the Absurd, others by some of its most important works, such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, mandatory sad literature in many high schools.

In keeping with this tradition, however, Far Away has a persistent and often dark humor, though less pronounced than in many other similar plays. The curt, rapid lines create a purposely artificial dialogue. The play does not try and hide its status as a play, but emphasizes its very theatrics. A black box production is a minimalist production of a play, with almost no set and the acting fully realized. For that reason this a perfect play to run in the Black Box theater series, of which Far Away is the fourth this semester, because the emphasis lands entirely on the text and how the actors are able to realize the surreal dialogue.

Suspenseful music crackled out the speakers and a trio of “prisoners” marched to either end of the darkened stage in a dystopic world, perhaps the future, perhaps even today. In what were potato sacks, or something that looked a great deal like them, the emotionless, repressed figures sat at opposite benches throughout the first scene. Leyla Hadi ’11, as Harper, walks onto the set, reads, paces then reads, until Nathalie Berman ’11, as Joan, appears at the back of the set. There is silence and stillness and rising anxiety. So much can be created only through positioning, and, more than the music or the prisoners, this unstated tension created by Joan sets the tone for the entire play, much to the credit of Cummings, the director.

Each scene advances the play by several years, and Joan grows from a girl to a woman, eventually finding what may be love. Berman’s voice magnificently adapted to the changes in age and most importantly to the quick, absurd speech used in the play. It’s certainly something to be able to talk about blood splattered children with the naïve and over eager enthusiasm of a young girl.

Todd (Alex Symes ’13) a hat-maker who meets Joan after hat-making school as part of a running joke about art, can be a more human and loving figure. Alex Symes not only gets the voice acting down but maintains the nuances of facial expression, finding a striking middle between artificial speech and genuine emotion.

In the end the play is about fear and ideological posturing. The latter gains much attention in the actual end of the play, as the separate sides of a global conflict are listed: Koreans, South Americans, Sharks, Deer, Bears, Butterflies, Oceans, Rivers, Light and Darkness are all listed as participants, which is humorous and adds a lot of gravity to the last scene, perhaps unnecessarily. Everything is forced to take a side. There is only an us and a them; there is no in between. Harper questions Joan’s commitment to ‘their’ side, hounding him about his hatred of deer and despairing at the uncertainty of what he may think. At this Joan shouts “I think what we all think!” It is an ambiguous and unnerving statement, and in this bare production it is one that summarizes an implicit warning.

Original Author: Ian Walker Sperber