Far Away

by Michael Cox

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday April 20, 2014

Becca A. Lewis and Bob Mussett in "Far Away"
Becca A. Lewis and Bob Mussett in "Far Away"  (Source:Chris McKenzie)

I have very little patience for pretention, lack of clarity and weirdness for weirdness sake. I've carved a niche for myself nicely within the center of the inane, plebian mass. And I like it that way. Because of this, I wasn't excited to see Caryl Churchill's name popping up all over town.

I first experienced Churchill, as so many of us do, in academia with a teacher who loved the playwright, but was an absolutely awful advocate for her work. The professor dictated Churchill as a memorandum. We were allowed to discover nothing. Instead were forced to submit to Churchill's genus.

I was afraid to even ask questions, because I'd watched other men ask questions and it didn't turn out very well.

A guy would ask what I though was a reasonable question like, "Who's the protagonist? Where are the reversals? Or at what point does the climax of the play happen?" And the class would attack him.

"Don't you know those are the conventions of oppressive patriarchal drama?" they would scream. "Only a man would expect a play to build to a climax!"

Because of the university, whenever I thought about Churchill I thought about confused, politically-correct, people blurting out nonsense that made them feel smart. This playwright is one of a handful of British writers that Americans label as "difficult," and that appears frequently in classrooms yet rarely on stages in this country.

Whistler in the Dark's "Far Away" and Bad Habit's "Top Girls" have completely changed the way I think about Churchill. I used to think of her as a didactic feminist; now I think of her as an absolutely brilliant dramatist.

"Far Away" is the kind of play you want to watch with an intelligent woman. At least, that's how you want to watch the show is as produced by the Whistler in the Dark theatre company, running through April 19 at the Charlestown Working Theatre.

The play starts out with an adult woman playing a little girl. Get ready for the weirdness, I thought. But I quickly and willingly suspended my disbelief as one of the most intriguing nightmares unfolded. There was just one problem; how much of this was reality and how much of it was the imagination of a little girl?

Each successive scene lead me father from what I thought to be real. Is the little girl dreaming that she's an adult, or is the whole world at war with itself? Have the cats become allies with the French? Have the Bolivians created the ultimate weapon out of gravity?

Had I been thrown into Churchill's text by myself I would have been lost, and I would have given up, but Meg Taintor is the perfect traveling companion on a journey through this script. She makes interesting choices without making the show all about her. In fact, that's part of what makes this production so exciting. Taintor (and Churchill) invite the audience to be an active collaborators in the piece.

An audience needs an intelligent guide to confer with, to help parse Caryl Churchill's surrealistic narrative flecked with a practical attempt at Antonin Artaud's theories of a 'Theatre of Cruelty.' Taintor does with simple, clean staging that beautifully integrates complex, focused scenes, live music and the vast, spooky world of the individual imagination. (The latter is completely unique to each different audience member.)

"Far Away" is the perfect seductress. She provides us with a compelling enigma and gives us just enough of a form beneath the clothing to make us want to undress her. And it's so funny we can't decide if it's closer to Maurice Maeterlinck or Seth MacFarlane.

Becca A. Lewis (Joan) is the foundation of this adventure, proving that a strong actor can lead us through the forest while letting us discover the path for ourselves. Joan's desire provides a lens, a point of view with which to view all of the confusion. Through her eyes we see this play's world as a Cubist painting. We don't see conventional "reality," rather we see the world from every angle at once.

The feminism that people anticipate in Churchill's work is deeply understated in "Far Away," in fact the most overt feminist satire is delicately woven into Cotton Talbot-Minkin's sardonic millinery.

At the end of a mesmerizing and horrifying fashion show, we feel like we've just experienced centuries of female oppression built from sequins, crepe paper and a hot glue gun. The designer draws from a long history of men defining the propriety and aesthetics of women's headdresses with materials that mock the wasteful conventions of a capitalist culture.

This truncation of styles becomes its own form of semiotics as Talbot-Minkin gives us her twist on the liripipe, the wimple and the hennin. (Watch out for a postmodern, neo-feminist take on the Easter bonnet that is - literally - to die for.)

Directors can rely on Bob Mussett (Todd) for his strength with text, skill with humor and passible British accent, but Taintor pushes Mussett to places beyond anywhere I've seen him go before. He is terrifying, charming and erotically compelling, tearing through the confusion and chaos with objectives that are definite and clear within his mind.

This show is about fear and discomfort, but Mussett shows us the most horrifying realization is that we can look into the eyes to the person we hold most dear and see that we will never truly understand that person.

Without this type of acting, without these human connections where people can be lost and naked and real with each other the hyper-reality of "Far Away's" world would fall to pieces.

What amazes me about "Far Away" is how I can't stop thinking about it. If a climax is the convention of a man's narrative, then give me more woman's theatre. Churchill has left me with a mood that lingers in my heart and mind unresolved, angst-ridden and longing for more.

I'm tormented by the fact that my first Whistler in the Dark show happens to be their last show -- ever. At once this leaves me empty inside and incredible excited to see where Meg Taintor will appear next. She's a phenomenal mentor and guide into what I've discovered to be a thrilling new world. I look forward to where she and I will go together in the future.


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