For the second feature in the Yale Cabaret’s 2010-11 Season, Artistic Director Andrew Kelsey, project initiator Louisa Proske, director Flordelino Lagundino, and producer Jennifer Newman offer a truly surprising and striking work, Caryl Churchill’s Far Away (2000), a vision of dystopia whose full horror sneaks up on you, a horror perfectly etched with inspired absurdist control. Churchill’s plays typically explore themes of social and political dysfunction, but unlike some of her work, Far Away does not reference any overtly topical themes. Instead, Far Away maintains a grasp on the political realm by suggesting how “regularized” or “normative” the most appalling circumstances can become. The totalitarian state functioning beyond the scenes we see portrayed can only be inferred, and that is what makes the play so lethal: the way references to the status quo always presuppose the logic – and an acceptance – of the situation, whatever it may be. As we gradually get up to speed – in three scenes taking place over an indeterminate span of years – we find that the world of the play has either gone entirely mad, or is literally comprised of endless war efforts, not only international, but interspecies in scope.
The great strength of this play is how good the dialogue is. In the first scene, a woman named Harper (Alexandra Henrikson) tries to command her niece Joan (Laura Gragtmans) to return to bed, only to uncover gradually that the niece has witnessed her uncle involved in an act of brutality, an act that Harper denies, then reinterprets for Joan’s benefit so that it seems a benign act, all for the best, though one that must be kept secret. What we don’t know, for a fact, is whether or not this couple is trafficking in abducted children or is actually helping them escape while brutally punishing traitors, but in either case, the slow burn by which the step-by-step discussion takes place establishes a world where normality is a thin veneer over inhuman acts, whether desperate or depraved.
The second scene is a workplace, a hat-making shop. But the oddities of the headgear being prepared by Joan (now young adult) and her senior co-worker Todd (Chris Henry) add an element of humor to what soon becomes another appalling situation. In the midst of their amiable workplace flirtation are little dropped facts like watching televised trials late into the night, or arbitrary problems with the workers’ job security. We learn that the hats are for parades, and shortly after we witness an example, as limping, zombie-like figures cross the stage, drably attired but for fantastical hats. It was a stunning moment of theater, implying both a complete loss of human dignity as well as gesturing to what we might think of as totalitarian aesthetics, adding a touch of the circus on the way to the gallows (a tip of the hat to Costume Designer Ana Milosevic for the entertaining chapeaus atop figures from a gulag).
In the final scene, the world is at war, as we learn strictly from the dialogue between Harper and Todd, waiting in Harper’s bland living room for Joan to return, and debating which animals and other creatures have joined forces with which nations. Churchill pushes the idea that “everything is political” to its logical, absurd conclusion: even the animal kingdom is political.
The revelation for me in this production was Henrikson’s performance – in the first scene she was young and maternal, a bit steely perhaps, but we are not sure at once who is the problem: her or her niece. As the dialogue unfolds we remain uncertain: is Harper completely duplicitous, making up things to explain away Joan’s fears, or uncertainly initiating the girl into the harsh realities of their world? And it is that uncertainty about Harper’s character that makes her so intriguing. In the final scene, Henrikson conjures an older Harper, not bitter so much as run ragged by maintaining a grasp of the world that necessitates knowing, for instance, which side the deer are on. As she berates Todd for his slips in the party line, her hectoring tone – despite the absurdly wild things she is saying – never slips into comic histrionics. We see a woman who actually lives in the world she describes, thus making it vivid and real to us as well, and unforgettable.
Far Away has two more performances: tonight, Sat. 25th, at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.
Far Away, written by Caryl Churchill; directed by Flordelino Lagundino
Yale Cabaret, 217 Park Street, New Haven; 203.432.1566; www.yalecabaret.org